by Reif Larsen
“Clever” novels frequently put me off. You know the sort I mean: those that make use of different fonts, footnotes, and other similar affectations. I often wonder if the purpose of all these bells and whistles is simply to disguise the fact that the author really has nothing much to say to the reader. And I find that so often novels about child geniuses all follow the same story arc: kid burns out and comes to no good end. So you can imagine my relief and delight when I discovered that Reif Larsen overcame both of my ingrained prejudices in his splendid and emotionally satisfying first novel, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet (Penguin Press, 2009). Twelve-year-old cartography genius Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet lives at the Coppertop Ranch (just north of Divide, Montana) with his über-laconic rancher father, his scientist mother (who is obsessed with finding a certain type of beetle that nobody else believes exists), his older sister, Gracie, and the memory of his younger brother, Layton, whose death has left an unhealed scar on the family’s psyche. T.S. spends his days mapping the world around him. We’re shown examples of his maps: there’s one describing the behavior of the female Australian dung beetle during copulation, while another is a three-dimensional time-map of 26 of the Spivet family toasters, including “highlights of its career and the date and nature of its demise.” Two other notable maps are of the family’s dinner table conversation and the correlation between the time and distance of the self-inflicted gunshot that killed Layton. Then one day T.S. gets a call from the Smithsonian Institution, announcing that he has won the prestigious Baird award. He’s invited to come address a select audience and receive the recognition due him for his outstanding scientific contributions. (T.S. realizes that the man on the phone has no idea that he’s only 12, but he’s too shy to tell him.) Almost on a whim, T.S. decides to hop an eastbound train and hope that he makes it to Washington in time to accept the award. As T.S. travels toward the Smithsonian, we are along for the ride, experiencing the world through the eyes of this brilliant, funny, and emotionally wounded kid. It’s a trip well worth taking.