Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: Tangerine, by Edward Bloor

Edward Bloor's novel, Tangerine, has too many different plots and themes to have an identity. On one hand it is a soccer story; on another hand it is a story about race and the urban school setting; also it's a story about a boy who can't remember something bad that happened to him long ago. It works best as a soccer story, as the other two stories grow cliche and uninteresting. It's not that this is a bad story. For the first 200 pages it's an engrossing tale, but it's in the last 100 pages that the story begins to go downhill. Way downhill.

Because of his dad's work situation, Paul Fisher and his family have moved to Tangerine Country, Florida, a place where tangerine oranges aren't quite as common as they once were. Despite his thick glasses, Paul sees a lot of things nobody else does. For one, he's touchy about being called legally blind. My first hope was that he was in denial of his physical defect, but as the story goes on it's clear that his eyesight is fine. It's Paul's parents who insist he's legally blind - they're the ones in denial. This sets the tone for the sophistication level of the novel. Rather than feature an unreliable narrator, it features a middle school teenager who knows more than the adults.

Paul knows that his brother, Erik, is a bad person. Everyone else, especially his father, only see a future professional football kicker, and the star of his new high school team. Some of the aspects regarding Erik are quite effective. We get a glimpse at parents who witness, firsthand, some of the atrocities their son carries out, but choose to turn a blind eye as though they don't want to admit that side exists. Paul also knows the real reason why it is the town's expensive koi have been disappearing from the pond. The adults are just too dim to notice it themselves.

What Paul is most interested in, however, is soccer. He tries out for the middle school team, but because his mom labeled him as legally blind he is not eligible to play. However, a large sinkhole destroys more than half of the school, which is made up of portable classrooms, and Paul decides to take the option of transferring to Tangerine Middle School. Tangerine Middle is a tough place. It's an urban district where whites are in the minority, but it's an opportunity for Paul to begin his soccer hobby anew. He tries out for the largely Hispanic soccer team, sans the legally blind tag, and makes it as a reserve goaltender.

What I like about the soccer elements is that they are nice and easygoing. The focus isn't on glory and victory (though the team is very good), and Bloor seems to be making the point that the importance of sport is not to win, but to improve one's self and create positive relations with others. Though Paul is technically the back-up goalie, which inevitably means he'll get his big chance at the end, for the most part he plays offensive positions, and it turns out he's not a bad soccer player. He solidifies his position on the team when, after taking over for the team's best player, he scores a goal. That player, Victor, slaps him a high-five and all tensions regarding Paul's higher-class status disappear.

The novel's attempts to develop the relations between Paul and his teammates off the field, however, fall flat. This is largely because the Hispanic characters are one-dimensional and the off-the-field meetings are too forced. Paul becomes closest with Tino, and we learn that Tino's older brother, Luis, is busy inventing a new type of tangerine. Paul spends time at Tino's hut and learns about tangerine trees, and in one crucial moment even helps protect the young trees during a freeze. Learning about the tangerine trees served as the novel's dullest moments, particularly during the freeze. Don't get me wrong, I love gardening, but the sections with the tangerine trees do nothing to move the story forward or provide any memorable information about the trees. The reader just learns what a chore it is to do the job - and to read about it.

The story involves a lot of freak environmental occurrences, such as the sinkhole. Lightning suddenly strikes a kid on the football field, and the suburbs are plagued with the smell of an ever-burning muck fire. These environmental issues seem to serve as a warning - no matter how much money you have you can't escape mother nature. The upper-class families that live in the suburbs attempt to fix the problems with money, to no avail. Some of the problems, in fact, occur because of greed and vanity. What other reason are football practices held during the most lightning-prone time of the day? The football team wants victory at all costs. Even in the sinkhole we learn about gross negligence that could have prevented damage to the school property. As nice as these themes are, they do little to prevent the novel from delving into strange territory for the novel's final act.

The soccer season serves as the story's anchor. Soccer season is the one constant surrounded by many of the events described above. So once page 200 hits and soccer season is over, the novel loses its anchor and drifts into bad seas. Characters begin behaving in bizarre ways. Late in the novel, Paul makes horrible decisions for the sake of his Hispanic friends and, strangely, the novel seems to condone what he does. Characters undergo convenient changes as though suddenly realizing the error of their ways. Characters also become one-dimensional, or at least they are more noticeably one-dimensional. The tragedy is that the novel was rather good for a long while. It's a shame Bloor wasn't able to stay true to his characters and his story. The novel ends up doing too much, when it would have benefited from further developing a single story line.

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