B.H. James holds a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska where he penned his debut novel, Parnucklian for Chocolate. He currently lives in Lodi, CA with his wife, baby boy, and their cats Rooster and Mike Tyson.
“Parnucklian for Chocolate is a hilarious, ingeniously absurd coming-of-age tale. James’s sentences are delightfully self-conscious and playful, clever but not too clever, and entirely original."
"[This book] will appeal to readers of the absurd and to those who appreciate comic coming-of-age stories."
"[James's protagonist, Josiah, is] a social anthropologist to the kitschy absurdities of contemporary pop culture, and an arbiter for the delusional, science-fictive nature of ‘home’ and ‘family.’”
By way of background, I do know Bill James. It isn't like we hang out and get hammered on the weekends, but we both attended the University of Nebraska MFA program. We hung out and chatted there from time to time and do still talk over Facebook and email once in a while. Bottom line: I know the guy.
My impression of Bill has always been one of a quiet and intelligent guy. Almost laconic, he talks well when he speaks up but doesn't necessarily speak up that often. At least, that was my impression.
The only reason I mention all of that is how utterly bizarre it seems when I hear Bill read or get a chance to read his work myself. For such a calm and soft-spoken guy (at least around me), the craziness of what he tends to write is flabbergasting. Quite seriously, it surprises me every time.
However, though I know this about Bill's writing, I was unprepared yet again when I picked up Parnucklian for Chocolate. Let's just take a quick peek at the very first paragraph:
Three weeks before his sixteenth birthday, Josiah was allowed to move back in with his mother, who had been impregnated with him during an alien abduction her freshman year of college. Josiah did not move back into the home he had grown up in — the home he had lived in with his mother — but rather Josiah moved into the home of Johnson Davis, his mother's new fiancé. Johnson Davis, with whom Josiah's mother had been living for the past four and a half months, also had a child: a girl, seventeen, fully-human, named Bree, who also lived in the home of Johnson Davis, but only on weekends.
Keep in mind; this is a relatively sane paragraph for this book. You will notice how the alien thing is just slipped into a fairly mundane seeming paragraph, almost as an offhand note. If it weren't such an odd thing to have as an offhand remark, the fact that Josiah hadn't been living with his mother and the fact he was moving into a stepfamily home would suggest menace and take precedence. However, put together the way James does it, we just can't be sure how to react.
The book only picks up from there. You see, Josiah's mother has told him all his life that he is special. He is special because he is the son of a ranking government official of a planet called Parnuckle, a place where the only food is chocolate. Obviously, there were some home environment problems and Josiah was removed. Now he is moving in with his delusional mother, her overly controlling though well-meaning fiancé, and her fiancé's wild-running daughter. A complex situation becomes even more complicated.
In short, the book is insane. It is wild, imaginative, and original . . . but also completely and utterly mad. Even the language of the prose has a certain amount of madness; it's own rhythm that sucks the reader in:
Josiah, who was twelve years old at the time, had his own room at the psychiatric facility — unlike his room in the group home he would be sent to in less than a year, which he would have to share — and each day a tall woman who smelled weird came to Josiah's room and led him down a long hall and a flight of stairs and another long hall to a room where Josiah met with a man who would ask Josiah a lot of questions. The room where Josiah met with the man was much different from Josiah's room at the psychiatric facility. Josiah's room at the psychiatric facility had been only a bed, a dresser, a table, a lamp, and a chair, but the room where the man asked the questions was filled with photographs of people hugging and photographs of people smiling — all in different settings, such as sandy settings and grassy settings and snowy settings — and some of the people in the photographs were the man who asked the questions and some of the people were not, and on one wall was a picture of an old house in a rainstorm and on another wall was a picture of a pink tree, and there were also several different types of chairs in the room, and two different couches, one long and one shorter, and both couches were the color of the walls, which were the color of wet wood.
Many more things in the room seemed to be made of wood, or to be the color of wood, unlike Josiah's room, where more things seemed to be made of metal and plastic, and the room where the man asked the questions was not as bright and not as cold as Josiah's room.
Strange choice and timing of detail, sentences that seem to go on forever or cut off abruptly, almost musical repetition–the above paragraph has it all. All that should be a mess, but it isn't. Just reading through it, you can feel how perfect the rhythm is. It's madness, but there is method.
Looking at the book as a whole, Parnucklian for Chocolate has to be one of the most surprising reads I've come across in a very long time. It is wild and crazy, but it is well crafted and touching as well. I think any writer would be justifiably proud to have created this work and it is interesting to think that this is coming from an author who is really just getting started. I'm sure there will be more, but you'll definitely want to check Parnucklian for Chocolate out.
People are going to be talking about this one.