Book review: The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg

(courtesy Arthur A. Levine books)

If a book has a quirky title, it’s a better than even bet than this reviewer will pick it up, hold it close and not yield it to anyone, save for the person at the bookstore (you know, because paying for things is good, not to mention legal), because it pretty much demands to be read, and read quickly (to the eternal lament of my huge TBR).

What often turns out to be the case with novels bearing such whimsical titles is that they they turn to have a deep well of truth within that is as emotional impactful as the title is playful and the cover a delight.

That is very much the case with The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg, a novel which leads with a charmingly eccentric title and follows through with a story that really hits home, and then some, its eye very much on the fact that amidst all the sparklingly smart dialogue and teens being wise, there are some fairly deep things to be explored.

It’s a masterful balancing act between silly and serious and Konigsberg masters it with absolute aplomb, serving up a story about a well-behaving but disaffected teen, Carson Smith, who is forced by this loving but somewhat remote therapist mum (think Leonard’s mother from Big Bang Theory and you’ll be kind of on the money) to spend his summer in Billings, Montana (instead of New York City which is where he calls home) with the dad he hasn’t seen for 14 years.

I stand up. ‘C’mon,’ I say, sure of myself while knowing it’s not my call to make.

‘Where are we going?’ she says, slowly standing.

‘Home,’ I say. ‘You’re staying with me.’

It’s not a dream vacation, and Carson isn’t pleased to be there, resentful of his dad’s negligence and his mum’s insistence that he needs to find a way to get to know him.

Not exactly what he signed up for on his break from school, and he’s pretty much consigned himself to hating everything about his terrible holiday when he meets Aisha, a girl his age who clever and sassy and drop dead gorgeous and who could very well be the girl of his dreams.

Except it turns out she’s a lesbian; so, kill off any dreams of love and romance but hello to the best friendship that Carson has ever known, a connection that propels him and Aisha on the most epic of road trips when they discover a box full of old and relatively recent cards and letters from Carson’s grandfather who disappeared some 36 years earlier and whose departure from the family home left Carson’s dad an emotional and physical mess.

It’s a no-brainer for these two bored teens, each with their own huge issues to navigate, to set off to find Carson’s missing grandfather on an Agatha Christie-ian joining of the dots that takes them in an ailing Dodge Neon from Montana all the way to California, with a porcupine of truth made partly from broom bristles, the god of an impromptu new religion – Carson is big on improv and really groan-worthy dad jokes – that both Carson and Aisha believe is way better than anything Christianity or any other religion came up with.

(courtesy official author site)

So, yes, quirky but dig down past the wonderfully playful title and fun set-up and you end up in the depths of The Porcupine of Truth with a story that really makes you think, makes you feel and which is going to end up with these two sleuthing teens having very different lives.

What makes this gem of a novel such a true delight to read and to lose yourself in so complete is its world-building and richly vibrant characterisation is that it dares to challenge all sorts of sacred ideas – it’s a big fan of spirituality, not so much organised religion and the propensity of its adherents to push their beliefs onto others whether they want that or not – while enveloping you in a hg so fierce and so big that you’ll feel like you’re part of the found family that coalesces around Caron and Aisha, his dad and mum and the others they encounter on their warm and quixotically rewarding journey.

A journey impelled by the way by a deep down need both teens have to deal with some weighty issues confronting them, but also by unspoken pain and hurt that only finds voice when they leave their painful everydays and head out on the road to people and places unknown.

We all know that kind of removal can do wonders for perspective but the effect on Carson and Aisha is profound, and though their dialogue is witty and jaunty, and their attitude largely why-the-hell-not, each is perched and ready, though neither initially knows or recognises it, for some seriously intense healing.

We find out how to get to the auto repair shop by bus, and when we get there, our car is ready. As Aisha pays the man, I’m glowing. I feel like a new person. From the extra bounce in Aisha’s step, I can tell she feels the same.

The Porcupine of Truth is a perfect blend of heartfelt and hilarious, wise in its outlook, empathetic in its approach and daring you to radically rethink your whole approach to all kinds of things.

Not bad for novel with a whimsical quirky title, right?

Once again, that’s the thing with books titled like that; they lure you in with their apparent playfulness and suggestion a road trip and humourously expressed teen angst and then go hard on a slew of salient truths that might hit hard in the lives of two protagonists not yet into adulthood but which has some impressive application to anyone’s life if you’re willing to pay attention.

Truths like seize the day, say what’s on your heart – minds are easy, hearts not so much – find those missing puzzle pieces of your life and family and don’t be afraid to lay everything on the line, including access to the first credit card (for “reasonable expenses”) that you’ve ever had in your life.

Written with verve, fun, wisdom and a heart-healing insightfulness that will blow your mind and revive your soul (yeah, it’s that good), The Porcupine of Truth is a sheer delight of a novel with protagonists and supporting characters you will love, a queer honesty that refreshes, empathy and humour in abundance and a gloriously good sense that the life you have know, ailing as it is, may not be the life you end up if you just take some chances in a dodgy car, a new friend and a porcupine full of all the kinds of truth you are ever going to need.

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