By James Conway
Synopsis:When his mother dies and he discovers the man he believed was his father is not, sixteen year old Chris is haunted by a mysterious apparition that forces him to question his pampered existence and embark upon a quest to find himself. Hoping she will “make a man of him”, he seeks sanctuary in the home of Magda, a middle aged waitress with a penchant for sex, only to discover she lives with her father, a cigarette smoking, beer swilling immigrant.
The Vagabond King is a coming of age (COA) story by author James Conway. When I was approached to review this book, I read the synopsis and automatically accepted. I really enjoy COA stories and the inclusion of a "mysterious apparition" suggested this was potentially a COA story unlike any I've previously read. The mysterious apparition didn't lead into the story I was expecting, but I thoroughly enjoying this book none-the-less.
So to expand on the synopsis, Chris is a 16 year old spoiled brat who is struck hard when his mother dies of cancer. Drowning in grief and missing his only friend (or so it appears, no one else is ever mentioned) Chris finds himself in the grips of an existential crisis, confused as to what he did to deserve losing his mum, and struggling with now being alone and without his support network. When his father, a business minded money-grabbing weiner, reveals that he isn't Chris's biological father, their strained relationship is stretched to the breaking limit and Chris runs away from home. He turns to the only person he can think of, Magda, a middle aged waitress who taught him about ancient myths when he stopped in after visiting his mother in the hospital.
Put in a tough spot, Magda offers Chris the chance to stay for the night, but as you can imagine, one day becomes two, becomes four, becomes several weeks... Once at the house though, things quickly grow more complicated. Magda is clearly uncomfortable with Chris's appearance and their relationship is further strained when Chris snootily looks down at everything in the house. The food, the furniture, the improvised bedroom they provide him, and perhaps most obnoxiously, her father. The rest of the book charts Chris's slow transformation away from the boy who turned up uninvited on Magda's front step.
Before I tackle some of the other aspects of the book I really want to discuss Christopher. My god, did I hate him. He's spoiled, shallow and self-indulgent and completely ungrateful for the effort Magda and her father make to keep Chris safe and fed and warm. He's also completely unable to live in the real world. He's constantly creating these bigger than life situations in his head, romanticising every minute detail to such an extreme that real life could never compare. For example, he wishes to travel to Europe because he sees it as a place of,
"not only of kings and queens, but of rosy cheeked peasants. The street urchins wore ragged but well patched clothes and the chimney sweeps and beggars were smudged but clean. Everything was like the set of a play" (page 119)While he tries to act like he's an adult with these big, huge adult thoughts his romanticism of everything around him, and his complete inability to adjust to new or strange environments and people really emphasise that he's a little kid thrust into an adult world he's completely unprepared for. Rather justly then, he tends to react like a child. He's unable to grasp why Magda's father would still be upset about his wife's passing because she was ugly, and when he's out of his comfort zone his automatic reaction is to throw a tantrum and blame it on someone else. There were times when I wished he'd materialise in front of me so I could punch him in the face, but it's so blatantly clear that he's a scared little kid reacting in the only way a spoiled rich kid with very few relationships (even with the mother he adored) knows how to.
Chris's salvation begins with Magda, but it's really her father that is responsible for pulling Chris back down to earth and teaching him how life actually is. At a time when Chris believed that he was the only person in the whole world who has truly felt grief or pain, Llaszlo Mihali (often referred to simply as The Old Man) made it pointedly clear that he not only understands pain, but he's felt it at much deeper levels. Still pained by the loss of his wife, The Old Man is a Hungarian migrant who lived through the horrific torment that rocked his home country. Initially, his stories seem to have little effect on Chris, at least not on any lasting level. Even after being told about some horrific crime against an entire village, he still thinks his suffering is more extreme, or more pure. But the old man doesn't give up. He recognises the good buried deep in Chris, and he works hard to help Chris recognise it.
The COA story is blended with poetry, blues music and mythology to create a rich and textured tale quite unlike most stories I've read of this sort. In particular, the mythology is used to emphasise the cyclic nature of life and belief and in regards to Chris's story, does a wonderful job of explaining his pain and where he fits in the world. There are a couple of parts of the novel which progress from regular prose into short prose poetry that is not only gorgeous to read but takes on shapes across the page, reflecting the story not only through the meaning of the text, but through the visual also. Though Chris's behaviour was so extreme that I almost blacked out with rage at times, the story is wonderfully paced and beautifully written, and the journey is interesting enough to encourage a reader to stick with it. A real pleasure to read, I can't wait to read more work by Conway.
My rating: 4/5