Reviewed by Justin Goodman
The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleton
by Robin Gregory.
Mad Mystical Journey
Paperback: 294 pages, November 1, 2015, ISBN-13: 978-1942545002
“Wait until you get to the end” goes the famous demand of story advocates (including myself), and for good reason. Quite literally, it is what a reader is left with, both as an accumulation of a novel’s ideals and as a reflection on the character’s purposes. Think about long-term memory: one of the more common issues it encounters is retroactive interference wherein a new memory competes with an old memory for space. The familiar example for parents and educators is Summer Slide. It’s this interference that an altogether astounding novel like The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman falls prey to, treating everything preceding its conclusion with a disempowering opacity. Needless to say, it wouldn’t be with bubbling excitement that I say, “wait until you get to the end.”
I want to do justice, however, to everything the ending forgets. The title character, Moojie Littleman, is an orphaned child of unknown origins born around 1892, with disabilities affecting speech development and his ability to walk and use an arm. The woman who comes to adopt and love him refers to him as “’diff-abled.’” Don’t pass this by: this is a disability narrative. Moojie struggles to come to terms with this, to adopt to it, to live with it, and this is the seeming crux of The Improbable Wonders. “Saint Moojie,” as the first chapter refers to him, is as human as he is ominous—foretelling of “mystical grumbles” and “terrible wonders”—and, in being set at the turn of the century creates an emotional parallel between Moojie’s coming-of-age and society’s. Throw in regular references to Moojie trying to imagine “what Odysseus would do if he were present” and you have a perfectly presented journey about returning to yourself.
Obviously Robin Gregory is a well-read writer. Not only does she mimic Homer’s “wine dark sea” with the novel’s opening of “dories…and spider crabs flood[ing] the beach like a ghostly pink tide,” but also refers back to great YA series like A Series of Unfortunate Events through her grim imaginativeness. Gritty magical realism is in vogue, if we account for the non-YA St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves by Karen Russell and Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi beside which The Improbable Wonders holds its own. So you won’t be surprised to hear that, yes, The Improbable Wonders begins with his mother’s death and that, yes, he’s abandoned by his father to be raised by an emotionally distant and vaguely abusive militaristic grandfather. Amidst his struggle to come to terms with this new reality, yes, he finds unexpected allies in the people that are widely thought of as cannibals and ungrateful natives in Moojie’s new hometown of San Miguel de las Gaviotas.
With the introduction of the Akil-Nuri (“Light Eaters,” in their tongue) we begin the transition from protagonist’s soul searching to a sweeping allegorical drama. While trying to maintain the shape of outcast young boy finds young girl who is already taken by the jock, astigmatism begins. The young Babylonia who “came when wordlings still ate flesh” (Moojie, childishly blunt, crows and stutters “gaw, y-you mean the Ice Age!”) makes Moojie feel indescribable: Gregory’s succinct description is “he was a poem.” His rival for her affection is a mystical, menacing, and classic display of masculine bravado and ego. Sarru’kan, the tribe’s guardian, is a spellcaster whose power centers around the image of a six-headed snake named Nahzi. As the antagonisms between Sarru’kan and Moojie, Moojie and Pappy, and the townspeople and the Akil-Nuri escalate, so to does the pace of The Improbable Wonders. To its detriment as it drops and forget factlets such as Moojie probably being the child of a former Akil-Nuri tribesman.
Now there is a place for allegory. That place tends to be beside a cluster of ideas that need a dynamic but simple kind of expression. That’s to say the overriding demand of an allegory is an ideal not focused on the matter that makes up the allegory; no one cares about Christ’s sower and the seed-eating crows, but what they represent. Motive is insignificant. And that’s how The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman becomes vapidly Dickensian in its last portion. Once the foreshadowed “mystical grumbles” threaten to consume the entirety of San Miguel de las Gaviotas, including his now returned father who has decided to purposely ignore him, Moojie is taken over by “an urgent, soul-deep command” whose lyricism belies its absence of purpose. Without spoiling too much, Moojie becomes more involved in town politics accompanied now by his Irish aunt, each displaying buffoonery lacking Dickens’ wit or Gregory’s sympathetic touch. Without the magic, and without the heart, what’s left is empty social comedy.
Resolution is then storms in accompanied by religious themes hampered by explication. Moojie’s possession of unique healing abilities clearly explains “Saint Moojie,” so it’s largely redundant that the tribe elder gives him a medallion with an etching of “’Eashoa, the greatest of the wayshower’” (Jesus, in Aramiac). Or Moojie’s concluding monologue where his “urgent, soul-deep command” is explained as “’like something bigger than me, something bigger than this world, brought us all into its own story.’” And for those initially excited about the possibilities of a disabled protagonist? This blissful present interferes with the dimmer past. He heals himself by sheer willpower, closing forever the possibility of an authentic story about coming to terms with bodily limits. Gregory’s pursuit of allegory undermines the magic of her realism with the latter demanding abundance, but the former demanding restraint. Was it not Christ who said, “the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it”?
About the reviewer: Justin Goodman graduated from SUNY Purchase with a B.A. in Literature. Having moved from Long Island, he now lives in the City with reviews in Cleaver Magazine and InYourSpeakers, and work in Italics Mine, 360 Degrees, and Counterexample Poetics.