Loud, Fast and Iowa Blows
Corn-belt misfits come of age
Review by John Bear
The House of Tomorrow
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
It should be no surprise that the two isolated, hormone-addled Iowa adolescents in The House of Tomorrow—by first-time novelist Peter Bognanni—love their punk music, though they find it in different ways.
Jared Whitcomb is a heart transplant recipient who lives with his born-again mother and promiscuous sister. He takes medication to keep his body from rejecting his new heart, which makes him incontinent. Listening to The Misfits on 11 and wearing a beanie with “Discharge” emblazoned across its front is the perfect way to torture his long-suffering mother. This in spite of the fact that she did buy him a guitar—“probably the most bad ass axe you will ever see,” Jared proclaims.
Conversely, the narrator, Sebastian Prendergrast, lives with his crazy grandmother, an adherent to the teachings of Buckminster Fuller, the dude who invented the geodesic dome. The two live inside a so-called “house of tomorrow” and give tours to provide income (Sebastian and Jared meet during one of these tours). Sebastian's grandmother keeps him from entering the world, and after having a stroke, she becomes increasingly erratic and controlling. He speaks like an autistic robot with a hyper-nerdy jargon developed between himself and Nana. Even as he narrates, the reader can’t help but ask, What's with this guy?
After purloining a bass guitar from the closet at church (a decidedly punk maneuver) they bang out A-minor over and over.
Sebastian possesses a hunger for human contact so great that he befriends the foul-mouthed, chain-smoking Jared—who’s isolated not only because of his medical condition, but also because he’s kind of a jerk. Jared’s sister is a jerk too, but Sebastian immediately fancies her as his latter-day Nancy Spungen.
Jared and Sebastian bond over punk rock, which, thanks to the Internet, is a readily available form of rebellion for shit head teenagers. Jared demands they form a band. After purloining a bass guitar from the closet at church (a decidedly punk maneuver) they bang out A-minor over and over.
The characters aren't the most three-dimensional, but it works here. Sebastian’s dearth of real-world experience has left him flat, lacking personality. Jared approximates a punk rocker and it consumes his personality. The result is always fun, even if a profound sadness lurks just below the surface.
The story is set in contemporary Iowa, but Bognanni has a command of ’70s and ’80s punk music. A fan of the genre will recognize this novel’s speckling of lyrics and band names. He obviously likes the music, and it's always a joy to see songs like “John Wayne Was a Nazi” referenced. The bits and pieces of Buckminster Fuller's futurist philosophy that have been hammered into Sebastian’s brain by his grandmother (she claims to have been Fuller’s secret lover) seem labored, however, like they were selected at random just to have something in stark contrast to the howling nihilism of Glenn Danzig. It's the Chuck Palahniuk effect—littering the text with factoids related to the narrative—but far less irritating. Plus, Bognanni’s foreshadowing lacks subtlety. No one likes to feel they’re being pointed toward things to come.
The House of Tomorrow is a story about coming of age and all the alienation that accompanies it. These are familiar themes, but trapping them in a geodesic dome (Look, it’s a metaphor!) is perhaps a little obvious. But Bognanni shows promise and will most certainly come back for more. In spite of a few glitches, House is solid.
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