Oct/Nov 2002 Book Reviews

Pobby and Dingan / Specks in the Sky

Ben Rice
Random House, (Oct. 2002) 147 pages
ISBN: 0 09 928562 2

reviewed by Ann Skea

Pobby and Dingan is everything the blurb and the chosen quotations on the cover say it is: unexpected, quirky, funny and moving. It's a wonderful story, beautifully told (see my separate, re-posted review). Ben Rice deserved to win the Somerset Maughan Award for it in 2001. Now, it has been published in paperback, back-to-back with another of Rice's stories, Specks in the Sky.

Pobby and Dingan was Rice's first book and it is superb. Specks in the Sky (first published in The New Yorker in 2001) is a quirky puzzle--a totally unreal fantasy in a realistic setting told by the strong voice of a young, tomboyish, girl. As in Pobby and Dingan, it is the voice which is its strength.

In a remote American location, on a derelict property where Ryder Jarvis lives with her mother and sister, bizarre things happen. Out of the sky comes a team of elite parachutists, super specimens of new-age (but tough) manhood, led by a Commander who talks in gung-ho clichés. They cannot reveal their top-secret mission but they take over the property, repair everything, clean everything up, cook gourmet meals, discuss literature and charm Ryder's mother and sister. Ryder is impressed but sceptical. She suspects that the men are fakes: and fakes they turn out to be. The story ends with a mad, comic, shoot-out which leaves all the men dead, and Ryder and her mother and sister ride off in their newly repaired pick-up into the sunset. Or so it seems!

Half-way through the story, everything was so unreal that I suspected that Ryder was making it up. Or that her missing father (responsible for the abandoned ant factory, gecko maze, chewing-gum sculpture of Lawrence of Arabia, and failed camel safaris) had planned it all. I half expected him to turn up at the end, explain everything, and be taken back to the bosom of a loving and forgiving family. But no, that didn't happen. Maybe Rice once thought of ending it that way but his characters decided otherwise. The story has that sort of crazy, unreal, unplanned pattern to it.

Specks in the Sky is nowhere near as satisfying and accomplished as Pobby and Dingan, but it's fun, and Rice's "voice" is so strong and his imagination so fertile that his name, as the cover blurb says, is certainly one to watch.


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