This noteworthy short novel has been written for the YA crowd, but its likely audience is some years older, readers familiar with the leading light of the second (and likely final) Golden Age of Comic Strips. The story concerns a schizophrenic Canadian teen who heads out across the frozen Lake Erie accompanied by an imaginary talking tiger named Hobbes and a girl from his school named Susie, in a mad quest to find the reclusive Bill Watterson.
Calvin was born the day the last Calvin and Hobbes strip appeared in papers. A relative gave him a stuffed tiger as a whimsical present, which he kept for years, until it was washed to pieces. As he grows into his teens and his schizophrenia manifests, Hobbes returns, as an auditory hallucination. Due to his oddness and social awkwardness, Calvin gets bullied by an idiotic thug named Maurice and abandoned by his friends. Most painful is the social abandonment of his childhood friend, a girl named Susie.
She returns to see him when he is in the hospital. There, he develops an odd plan that he believes will cure him. He intends to cross the frozen water of Lake Erie to Cleveland, Ohio and locate the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson. We know from the start that the tiger accompanying him doesn't exist in the physical world. Some time will pass before we know whether the Susie who joins him is another manifestation of his condition, or an actual human being, intent on setting things right.
The book, written in brilliant, stripped prose, features fantastic descriptions of a sparse and deadly land(lake)scape that reflects its protagonist's afflicted mental state. Calvin is a small piece of art.
Art, especially art conscribed by genre, comes at a price. The book assumes reader familiarity with Calvin and Hobbes; that may be a small section of its intended audience. Older readers may find that the ending, while suited to the genre, feels abrupt and a bit too easy.1
Nevertheless, Calvin feels fresh, despite borrowing its central characters from a well-known source and its plot from centuries of quest-narratives (and not a few books which impose modern psychiatric understandings on the quest). There is no denying the power of Leavitt's prose, and the poignancy of many of Calvin's moments with his friends, real or imaginary. It's far from being a perfect novel, even a perfect YA novel, but it deserves special consideration for even attempting this premise. Calvin itself represents a kind of mad quest.
Author: Martine Leavitt
First published December 2015.
1. SEMI-SPOILER: Unless you impose on it a spectacularly dark twist, which the book does not really support.