Posted on December 20, 2014 | Back to Literature
REVIEWED: Noggin by John Corey Whaley
Here be spoilers.
Noggin is the second novel by John Corey Whaley, following his quiet excellent 2012 book, Where Things Come Back. I so enjoyed his writing that when one of the groups I belong to on Goodreads offered Noggin as their December reading challenge, I immediately went out and bought my copy.
In a world where so much young adult literature seems regurgitated from other sources, I really appreciate Whaley's ability to introduce the reader to authentic characters existing in unusual circumstances. In Where Things Come Back, he dealt with stranger abduction in a way that was strangely engaging and deeply moving. In Noggin, he introduces us to 16-year old Travis Coates, who died five years ago and got a second chance at life when his head was cryogenically frozen and then reattached to another boy's body. What sounds like the premise for a bad 1980s science fiction movie Whaley renders with surprising authenticity. I think part of his success here was in not over-explaining or over-analyzing how "cranial reattachment" works. In Travis's world, it just did work — and now the boy everyone gave up for dead has to readjust to a universe five years older and, in many ways, tremendously different from the one he remembers.
Of course, few believed that Travis would come back and all of them mourned him in different ways. His father fell into a crushing depression which ultimately led to his parents' divorce. His closeted best friend, who came out to Travis shortly before his "death," has retreated even further into denial. His girlfriend / soulmate now has a new fiancée and won't even talk to Travis since his "return." What should be a joyous medical achievement is further complicated by people from all over the world sending Travis thousands of letters. Some think he's the Second Coming, others the Anti-Christ. Either way, it's a lot for a high school sophomore to handle.
As with his first novel, Whaley's strength is in his character development. Travis is a kind, thoughtful person who realizes his good fortune but also suffers from his own peculiar form of survivor's guilt. The supporting characters are also well crafted, and we can both rejoice for them and understand their pain at having buried someone they love only to figuratively exhume him years later.
If I have one major criticism with Noggin, I felt Whaley spent too much time on Travis's obsession with winning back his former girlfriend. I recognize this would be paramount for any teen in Travis's position, but his frustration and ennui is revisited so many times it becomes redundant and tiresome. There were times when I really wanted to see Travis interacting with the other characters in the book and was irritated by his single-mindedness. That being said, props to Whaley for not taking any easy routes to a nice, neat resolution on the girlfriend issue or any of the other themes addressed in Noggin.
Life is messy after all, especially for a boy who's head was cut off and reattached to another person's body.