The Night Gwen Stacy Died, Sarah Bruni, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, 274 pp
The other night I saw "Man of Steel" which I liked and disliked in equal measure. It must be my year for Superheroes in film and books, because The Night Gwen Stacy Died is loosely connected with Spiderman. I had forgotten that Gwen Stacy was Peter Parker's girlfriend.
Being raised by careful parents in the 1950s, I was not allowed to read comic books. Truly, I wasn't interested and never understood the allure until I read Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. As far as I can tell, comic books in the 1940s were the equivalent and forerunners of video games, particularly for boys.
Sarah Bruni says in an interview that she never read comic books as a child either but in her first novel a young boy grows up without a father and changes his name to Peter Parker. He has dreams in which future events show up and scare him to death, so he becomes obsessed with preventing these events and saving the victims.
At the age of 26, Peter is a taxi driver and meets 17-year-old Sheila Gower at the Sinclair station out on the edge of Iowa City, where she works after school and dreams of moving to Paris. Sheila runs away with Peter to Chicago, only to discover that she has become Gwen Stacy to Peter, who expects her to help him save the next victim. They fall in love and Sheila has to intuit what the hell is going on with Peter Parker, who he really is, and what this new role in life requires of her.
I had no idea what I was getting into when I started reading. The story begins with pages of telling, not showing, the inner life of Sheila. I saw with a clarity I had not previously understood, why writing classes and books tell you to start your novel off with a bang if you want to get published and snare readers. Perhaps Sarah Bruni was counting on all of us having seen the many Spiderman movies over the years and thus to catch on. In fact I did keep getting mental pictures of Kirsten Dunst. I felt Peter's angst through Tobey Maquire's portrayal of the troubled boy.
The Night Gwen Stacy Died turned out to be a fabulous piece of imaginative writing complete with coyotes bringing enlightenment in slipstream fashion. A love story, a redemption story, a mystery, and a sensitive study of identity, dreams, and heroes. What starts out as an incomprehensible mess turns into a heart-stopping thriller set in the slums of Chicago.
It made me recall all the boys I helped to grow up with their loves of Evel Knievel, Yngwie Malmsteen, Luke Skywalker, with their capes and skateboards and guitars and light sabers. How we figure out who we are and who we wish we were and how to get back the people we have lost. Now I can't stop thinking about this novel nor keep myself from peering into the personas of my friends.
Who did you pretend to be?
(The Night Gwen Stacy Died is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)