Thursday, September 3
by Gary Paulsen
Wendy Lamb Books / Random House
Is it me, or does Gary Paulsen seem to be ripping through a very fertile period? These past few years he's released, it seems, two or three books a year and they always slip in under the radar where I find out about them by accident.
I was actually trying to remember the title of a book of his I read and liked and came across this as I was scanning the shelves. Being in the mood for a light read, and with a promising flap summary, I took the bait.
Lyle Williams is Mudshark, a kid we are told is cool. Cool not so much because he is hip but because his demeanor is calm and detached. When things go missing or problems need to be solved everyone – including adults at school – know to go to Mudshark. So notorious that the day someone tags his locker with a sign proclaiming the Mudshark Detective Agency he simply smiles in acknowledgment.
Small problems plaque Mudshark's fellow students - misplaced gym shoes and lost homework folders - but with his keen eye and memory he is able to resolve cases quickly. Larger problems loom as chalkboard erasers go missing, foul odors come from the faculty lounge, and a gerbil has escaped is cage and at large. Complicating matters is a new school pet, a parrot, who appears to possess a psychic ability that threatens Mudshark's place as the school mystery solver. In the end, Mudshark must debunk the parrot, find the missing erasers, and tie up every other mystery in order to retain his title, and his cool factor.
Paulsen's pacing is odd. The book seems to meander for the first 38 pages (out of 83) as he sets up all the bits and pieces that will eventually come together in the end. They almost read like vignettes, and yet when the story finally kicks in there isn't a sense that everything actually is tied together, or that it ever will. It isn't that Paulsen is being crafty, its this feeling that none of it matters. The only clear conflict is that Mudshark is going to be replaced by a parrot, and solving that mystery almost gets lost in the shuffle.
The mystery to me is why people aren't more upset with Mudshark for his abilities. He is able to find lost items and answer mysteries only because he witnesses them. Which begs the question: if you see a kid drop his homework folder, why not tell him he dropped it? Why wait until he realizes its missing and then play at being a detective when really all you're doing is withholding information until it makes you look good? To that end Mudshark isn't cool, he's manipulative and his powers rely entirely on luck, not skill.
Withholding information is key, because Paulsen does that as well. The mysteries presented cannot be solved by the reader (or at least by a smart reader) they can only be solved when Paulsen/Mudshark explain them. Setting up all these careful mysteries at the beginning leaves the reader hoping there's a great puzzle to be solved, but then before clues can be revealed the mystery is solved. Highly unsatisfying.
Paulsen does write with a breezy clarity that makes him a first choice for reluctant boy readers, but this wouldn't be one of my first choices.