Posted on April 21, 2013 | Back to Literature
REVIEWED: Going Bovine by Libba Brray
Here be spoilers.
Meet Cameron Smith. He professes to be your average 16-year-old high school student... and he's right. He gets mediocre grades, has a tenuous relationship with his parents, is regularly disappointed by his social-climbing sister, and occasionally breaks up the prosaic nature of his life with a big, fat joint. Then one day he finds a giant pink feather lying on his bed with the word HELLO written across it.
What might first seem to be a practical joke, or maybe even a paranormal experience, turns out to be neither. For soon after Cameron begins to have hallucinations, including involved conversations with an angel named Dulcie who sports pink hair, combat boots and has a tendency to spray paint her massive wings. Dulcie tells Cameron that he has a destiny to fulfill, although this seems unlikely since the boy's been diagnosed with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as Mad Cow Disease. He's moved from his comfortable suburban home into a bed at St. Jude's. From there, the days drag on, filled with waning hope and a whining teenage dwarf named Gonzo who shares Cameron's hospital room. Although dwarfism isn't necessarily fatal, his over-protective mother's made Gonzo afraid to live life, while one bed over, Cameron's is slowly slipping away. The future for both boys seems bleak, until they discover how to make all better.
With Dulcie's help, the two patients escape from St. Jude's and set off on a search for an enigmatic scientist called Dr. X. The good doc, Dulcie assures Cameron, will not only cure his BSE but will save the universe from destruction at the hands of a vicious, Darth Vader-like character called The Wizard of Reckoning. What follows is a skewed quest story, a cross-country journey where Cameron and Gonzo piece together clues to Dr. X's location; escape from fire giants; rescue a Norse god trapped in the ceramic body of a garden gnome; and bring down a cult where vanilla-flavored smoothies are the ultimate libation.
Going Bovine brims with symbolism, both personal to Cameron and universal to the rest of us. His adventure invokes the recollections, hopes and regrets of a life which may be tragically short. The kicker is you're never really sure if Cameron's actually on this wild teenaged adventure, or if it's all a fantasy created by the virus slowly eating away at his brain. Now don't worry – I'm not going to tell you how the story ends. I'll only say that Going Bovine is one of those books you hate to see end, partly because you're enjoying Cameron's exploits, partly because you're afraid the promised happy ending is just an illustion.
Yeah, just like life, Going Bovine requires you to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
The content and language of the book puts it much more toward the "adult" side of the "young adult" genre, but it would be an engaging read for anyone say fourteen-years and up. The hallucinatory nature of Bray's prose can be both mesmerizing and baffling, but this is still one of the best YA novels I've read in the last year. It's also the funniest – a difficult trick considering the subject matter. And though the book's length may be daunting to some young readers, trust me, those 500 pages are as fun as a road trip to Disney World.