This is a mad-cap novel that comes like a breathe of fresh air to the sticky summer heat. Bold and inventive, Mad Boy is packed with action, adventure, drama and genuine belly laughs. It’s the story of Henry Phipps, a ten-year-old boy from Maryland, for whom troubles abound in time of war. It is full of sharp observations on the absurdities of life and the cruelty and compassion of humanity. An extraordinary rites of passage and a beguiling flight of fancy. Full of ideas and very entertaining.
Was there ever such an unlucky boy as Henry Phipps? The first cruel blow, the first of many travails for Henry, is the news that his brother is to be shot by a firing squad for cowardice that very morning. He cannot understand this as Franklin is the most upstanding person Henry knows. He rushes to tell his mother but she is killed in tragic but absurd circumstances shortly after, reminiscent of the Graham Greene short story ‘A Shocking Accident’. Her ghostly voice accompanies Henry on his journey as he leaves the family home. A trip partially instigated by her desire to be buried at sea; “Don’t you think of burying me in this filthy swamp”, she says. His father is an alcoholic and an inveterate gambler, currently serving time in debtor’s prison in Baltimore. He has even gambled away the money Henry’s brother Franklin got for enlisting in the army, money intended to get him out of jail.
Henry has a plan, well two really, he intends to raise enough money looting the battlefield to free his father but he is also carting his mother’s body around in a pickle barrel (preserved in brine), heading for the coast. Of course, events and the people he meets along the way hinder this endeavour. Henry also wants to save Mary and her baby from their confinement in Alexandria, the child is his brother’s. Her rich merchant father, Suthers, is determined to keep the couple apart. Add to the mix the hunt for two stolen sacks of gold and silver and you have a remarkable adventure, not all of it tragedy.
Mad Boy is slightly surreal, with notes of magic realism, but it’s a heart-felt tale full of pathos and the colours of life. The battle scenes are bloody, visceral and pungent, the plight of slaves treated as goods is appalling. The reality of war hits home. Franklin describes the first experience of British cannon: “When one fired, it did so in apparent silence–smoke flung out of the barrel like a bundle of rags. The boom came seconds later. The crash of the shell came yet later, with a noise like an iron kettle smashing as if flung metal and made a burned place in the grass.”
The triumph of the novel is Henry, he is a wonderful character, a resourceful boy, a determined and intelligent little fellow, courageous and likeable. It’s a pleasure to share his journey and meet the supporting cast of misfits, soldiers, prostitutes, conmen and family. The deserter Morley tells Henry: “I didn’t like my orders. So, I gave myself new orders: go plundering! A man has to know when to seize the initiative, and no man has many chances in life like this one.”
This touching tale of a young man forced to grow up quickly is warm and intelligent and very readable. Nick Arvin is the author of two previous books, Articles of War and The Reconstructionist.