The Boy on
(Soho)argaret Diehl's brother Jimmy was killed riding a bicycle when he was fourteen. A few months later, her father committed suicide. The Boy on the Green Bicycle tells us what happened to the family immediately preceding and following these two events. It is mostly concerned with what Ms. Diehl thinks went on inside her nine-year-old head at the time.
And what a head! Thinking, plotting, scheming, wondering, replaying old tapes, being afraid, blaming herself, "Why don't I...?" and "Maybe, I should have..." It's the endless babble, the unbridled chaotic conscious mind at work. Here, for instance, are Margaret's thoughts the night of Jimmy's accident, before she and the family had found out exactly what happened to him:
For a moment I was angry at him for being late and how he would answer back when Daddy yelled, provoking more yelling so he'd have to stay home. The inevitability of it. If he was soft and agreeable, like me, he could come with us. If he cared about the fact that I couldn't stand him staying behind, that I needed him there; but this thought embarassed me. You weren't supposed to need your siblings that way...I was wrong to worry so much about myself when it was Jimmy who'd get yelled at, Jimmy the target of Daddy's wrath. It awed me a little: How could he bear it? I couldn't imagine doing things to bring that fury on myself: poor Jimmy. He had to fight Daddy all alone, we didn't help him. I should help him. I wanted to, the wanting swelled in my chest. To be brave. But I wasn't brave, not enough to say or do anything. I could only work on the invisible plane.
Whew! Can you imagine her seething little brain, doing all that basket-weaving, day in and day out? And this is but one passage out of 309 pages of the supposed thoughts, impressions, feelings, musings, interior dialogue of a child --- going on and on and on until we want to throttle her ass just to shut her up.
Ms. Diehl is trying to verbalize child-thought. Many would claim that she nor no one else in the world could ever succeed in such a pursuit. For one thing, our memories of our child-days have accretions of so many other memories-
thoughts- feelings plastered atop them that what we are able to dredge up from back then is going to be mostly fantasy. (We all learn this when we compare our memories from back then with the memories of one of our siblings. They rarely seem to jibe.)
Furthermore, until they grow up and get stupid like adults, children are not usually locking their feelings into the prison of words. The adult Margaret can try to manufacture words to reflect what she thinks the feelings of 1965 Margaret, but it's a fool's game, for one of us will ever know what was going on in our pointy little heads so many years ago. I was there, and I may have had feelings, but whatever I felt then has been corrupted, and corrupted deeply, by my enculturation --- most especially by the language we come to assume as we reach adulthood.
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s Diehl has another problem that skews the tale she wants to tell. That is, she doesn't have a bit of a sense of humor, or --- if she does --- she doesn't let it show on these pages. The death of two family members, within four months of each other can never be a knee-slapper, but at the same time, the most tragic moments in our lives are usually --- if we pay attention --- tempered with some overwhelmingly silly event that mocks our tears. When Hamlet is building up to the final vengeance for the murder of his father --- he stops off in the graveyard to contemplate the skull of Yorick, who, alas, he knew well. In the midst of all the blood of Macbeth, Shakespeare brings out the Porter, who --- though it may be death himself banging at the gates --- turns it into a drunken (and quite silly) monologue. Graham Greene's "Whiskey Priest" in The Power and The Glory goes to his execution not as a hero but, with his feet going hither and yon, almost as a slapstick comic.
Our final problem with this work is that old bugaboo --- style. If Diehl wants us to feel the tragedy that swept her and her family, she must give elegance to it. That's required. She cannot have elegance when the lead character is named "Booger" who describes, in intimate detail, how she picks her nose, and where she puts the leavings. If Diehl is trying to make us feel seriously about the death of a funny, smart, lively, popular and loveable boy --- she simply has to present us with a better voice.
For her next stab at it, she might want to study some Shakespeare, or the last few pages of War and Peace, A Farewell to Arms, or James Agee's noble A Death in the Family. It is in these that the nobility of death --- and it's bitter tragedy --- are made meaningful, even for those of us who have yet to experience it.--- Mary S. D. Ryan