Bob Proehl grew up in Buffalo, New York, where his local comics shop was Queen City Bookstore. He has worked as a bookseller and programming director for Buffalo Street Books, a DJ, a record store owner, and a bartender. He was a 2012 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Fiction and a 2013 resident at the Saltonstall Arts Colony. He has written for the 33⅓ book series and worked as a columnist and reviewer for the arts and culture site PopMatters.com. Proehl currently lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife, stepson, and daughter.
"For all its acrobatic wit and outsize charm, at its heart this is the love story of two everyday heroes—a mother and a son—who, like their author, possess the superpower of storytelling. A Kavalier & Clay for the Comic-Con Age, this is a bighearted, inventive, exuberant debut."
"Proehl creates worlds within worlds within worlds, all of them full of surprise and wonder."
“Who doesn’t like a good origin story? This delightful novel has a dozen of them, each sparking deftly off the next. A work of wit and heart, A Hundred Thousand Worlds is for anyone who craves a smart family saga. Especially one with superheroes. I loved it completely.”
Confession: I can’t get enough mother-son relationship books. I mean it, too. If every text I read contained some kind of mother-son crisis, friendship, or adventure, it wouldn’t get old. These stories are surely not unusual. Some of the most celebrated pieces of literature revolve around mother-son bonds. For example, Emma Donoghue’s Room, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, and James McBride’s The Color of Water each celebrate motherhood and sonhood in special ways. Part of what makes these types of stories so appealing to me is that they create a rare, globally intersected reading experience. It’s with a glad heart that I announce the latest worthy addition to the mother-son canon: Bob Proehl’s smart and kindhearted A Hundred Thousand Worlds.
Proehl’s novel follows Alex Torrey, a moderately precocious and fully captivating nine-year-old boy, and his comic convention staple of a mother, Valerie, as they travel from the East Coast to Los Angeles with the (unfortunate) goal of meeting up with Alex’s absent father. To say why Val is taking Alex to see his dad would be too much of a spoiler, but it’s safe to point out that the dad isn’t someone you’ll be rooting for.
As A Hundred Thousand Worlds makes its central road trip, there are many comic convention stops along the way, where a host of fun and eccentric characters pop up. There’s an unlucky comic writer, a woman who’s tired of the male-dominated world she tries to inhabit, and illustrators and fans galore. Each adds a nice layer to the larger novel.
The world Proehl creates is exuberant and engaging. It’s impossible to deny that Proehl’s novel is an infectious read.
While A Hundred Thousand Worlds possesses a tonal lightness, there’s also something deeper at work in the novel’s heart. There’s the obvious symbolism of Proehl having his protagonist venture westward. There’s a death. Don’t worry; I’m being metaphorical here. Alex loses his innocence. He grows up. Proehl writes of Alex’s changing mannerisms: “He becomes more adult when she’s not there. His gestures are broader, more sure. He is taller, maybe, or stands up straighter.” Also, Alex wants to go on trips into the nearby cities to buy books and explore with a friend–not his mother. He desires to understand adult complexities. Why can’t all relationships be as simple as he sees them? Why don’t his mother and his father have a relationship?
The most riveting sections, as you might suspect from my opening, are the moments in which Proehl shows the full workings of the mother-son pair. One of the supporting comic-con regulars notes, “It’s a basic rule of nature: you don’t come between a mama bear and her cub.” The love Val shows toward her son makes this statement particularly resonant. Proehl’s prose highlights the intense bond the two have together:
Any time they spent apart was always defined by place and duration. I’m going to the store, I’ll be back in twenty minutes. I’m going downstairs for a drink, I’ll be back in an hour. It seems impossible to think that soon he will not know where she is all the time, and she won’t know where he is, either. His position in space has always been in relation to hers and now, without that, he wonders if he’ll be like a boat on the whole ocean, where you can’t see land in any direction, and the sun cycles over you day after day.
The love Alex has for his mother is just as intense. In one of the book’s best lines, Alex says, “Stories can be true even if they’re not real.” He frequently asks his mother to tell him a story, knowing fully that the truth isn’t always what he gets from her. But what she tells him is what he needs to hear, and he, in turn, finds comfort in her words.
As I was reading, I found myself feeling amazed that the novel is a debut. Proehl’s fine craftsmanship is as evident on the first page as it is on the last one. The dialogue pops; the prose is fresh; the pacing is quick.
Bob Proehl’s A Hundred Thousand Worlds, with its pitch-perfect ending, might just be the best road trip that I’ve taken all summer.