Conjure if you can, a time when there was no Facebook or Twitter, or even computers. A time with no cell phones, answering machines or cable TV. It’s difficult to imagine. Jack Gantos sets his new novel, Dead End in Norvelt ($15.99, Farrar, Straus Giroux) in such ancient and austere times. It’s billed as a young adult novel, but the only thing “young” about it are the eyes and voice of the protagonist. This is a tale of the corruption and greed of adulthood running headlong into the idealism of a 12 year old boy.
Gantos names his protagonist after himself, and young Jack is looking forward to a summer of baseball, reading, and turning 12. Norvelt, founded during the Great Depression in a fit of socialistic idealism, is a dying town in Pennsylvania whose residents are primarily the widows of coal miners. Jack, a history buff, learns of the town’s history when his elderly, arthritic neighbor asks him to type (as in typewriter) the obituaries as the widows begin dying off.
Jack is at that age between charming child and terrible teenager; a kind of limbo if you will, not unlike the state of the country at the time. It’s the summer of 1962; John Glenn has just orbited the earth; the Cuban missile crisis is months away; JFK is still alive, and Vietnam is not yet a household word. It’s an insulated town frozen in an insulated time, not yet having to confront the turmoil that is just around the corner. All would be well if the old ladies would stop dropping dead. They are old though, and none are dying before their time, but it is a little strange. And then the Hells Angels show up, the vacant houses start burning down, and nothing will ever be the same.