Sixteen-year-old Barney Snow is the only patient in his hospital ward who isn’t dying. Unlike the other kids however, most of his memory is gone; he has only vague recollections of a car accident, and the knowledge that he is at the hospital as a service to others. At the heart of this story is a mystery: why have all these dying teenaged boys been assembled in this mysterious place? Who is the mysterious “Handyman” who hands out “merchandise”? And why, if Barney isn’t dying, is he here?
Cormier is a master storyteller, and this book is a taut psychological tale that that will have you guessing right up until the end.
Actually, this book will have you guessing after the end as well, because Cormier is (apparently) the master of the indeterminate ending. Which is not a problem, unless you are one of those people who do not like to ponder and who must be told exactly how it ended. In that case, you may just want to skip this one. But if you can handle such an ending, this book is a real treat.
One other thing I want to add for all aspiring writers who pick up this book is that Cormier is also a master of characterization. Cormier manages to flesh out his characters in a way that seems almost effortless. It’s not easy to describe a character who doesn’t talk much, and is pretty much a static character throughout the story, but Cormier pulls it off with panache:
Barney pushed Billy in the wheelchair toward the doorway. Allie Roon walked ahead of them. Or rather, jangled. Allie Roon always danced to some unheard melody, some unknown rhythm. But a depraved rhythm, ever changing, fast then slow then fast again, not at all like the rhythm Barney sought in his daily life. Allie’s every moment was spasmodic, especially his hands: His hands were spiders forever climbing invisible webs. He seldom spoke, and when he did speak he stammered, the words emerging torturously in a shower of spit. Allie was the youngest person in the Complex, just a kid, twelve or thirteen. But he had an old man’s face, wizened and worried, as if he’d lived a century or more. (9)
That’s some description, with unforgettable metaphors and ending with a simile that in lesser hands would be reduced to cliché. Cormier makes it look easy, but there are years of writing experience behind this passage, and I would bet, quite a few rewrites of this in his garbage can.
Science note: By the way, the title of the book is based on an idea that according to the laws of aerodynamics, bumblebees can’t fly. They do fly, of course, and the story of how that idea started, which you can read here, is an interesting one in and of itself. (That story includes a link which is now defunct, but which you can read here.)
Cormier, Robert. The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. New York: Bantam, 1983.