Pedlar Press, 265 pp.
Michael Boyces debut novel Monkey is like a kung-fu story for grown-ups.
In fact, the author acknowledges Dr. Seuss as an inspiration, along with a sundry of influences as varied as Gertrude Stein, Lao Tse and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These influences have shaped this lyrically written novel, whose three characters are gifted with superhuman physical and intellectual powers. Similar to the lonely fate of comic book heroes and villains, these characters extraordinary powers isolate them from the rest of society.
When we first meet the monkey, the central character of the novel, he is a happy-go-lucky prankster who delights in being "tricky smart, Bugs Bunny smart" and outwitting those who do not have his mental abilities. Just to prove his cleverness, he sneaks into peoples homes while theyre out and proceeds to eat their food, dance around or steal a worthless curio that they might not notice is gone. But the monkey is vain enough to believe he will never be caught, and his overconfidence starts to make him careless. A man manages to catch a glimpse of the monkey just as he flees the scene of one of his many break-ins. What the monkey doesnt know is that the man who saw him is the snake, a cunning and dangerous character who is not someone to be trifled with.
The snake associates with a nefarious group and never bothers to lock his door because, "When you know the people that he knows you never need to worry." Yet the snake "belongs to no one but himself" and in return for the dirty deeds he carries out he maintains an affluent lifestyle and is able to preserve his independence. The snake is intrigued by both the monkeys audacity to enter his place and his special powers (which he instantly recognizes) and thinks the monkey may be a useful partner in crime. He tracks down the monkey but will not exact revenge for the intrusion (for now).
Unbeknownst to the monkey and the snake, they are being stalked by the tiger, who has the ability to make herself invisible. She is a member of a secret group who "think they know whats right" and seek to destroy the "great evil in the hearts who live for bad." She too is aware of the monkeys gifts and hopes he can be persuaded to join in her struggle to defeat evil.
It is never revealed how the characters acquired their powers and the reader learns only vague details of the monkeys past. What is described in detail is the hand-to-hand combat between the characters when they encounter each other for the first time. They fight not to destroy the other, but to discover each others strengths and weaknesses and gain their respect. The vivid scenes are filled with spinning kicks, back flips, cartwheels, propulsions through the air and lethal punches, not to mention strong sexual tension between the bewitching tiger and her two male counterparts.
The narrative follows the tiger and the snake as they plot and manoeuvre to gain the monkeys allegiance. The relationship between the three becomes increasingly complex as their entanglements begin to impact their emotions, self-identity and associations. Loyalties are tested and principles are questioned. At one point the tiger remembers that, "the final resting place in the progress of a discipline, of any discipline, including those for fighting, (is) the heart." The same could be said of the progress of life and all three ultimately have to decide if they will follow their hearts or stick to their current loyalties.
The unique rhythm and lyrical style of the writing, combined with the witty observations of how social interactions can transform us make for an enjoyable read. The novel is much more fun than the over-intellectualized synopsis on the back cover would suggest. As the ending is a beginning of sorts, perhaps this is not the last we will read of this extraordinary trio.