This novel really blew me away—partly because it wasn’t quite what I expected but also because it manages to walk the line between a science fiction novel and a Raymond Carver short story. Dale Sampson grows up in a small town in Southern Illinois–a brainy loner. However, in sixth grade he strikes up an unlikely friendship with Mack Tucker, popular jock, and becomes just a little bit less of a loner. He and Mack connect, in part, because Mack has an abusive father and Dale had one, who left. As they move through high school, Mack attempts to push Dale out of his shell and get him to at least talk to girls, but is unsuccessful until he points Dale in the direction of a set of twins, Regina and Raeanne, and asks him to choose. Dale chooses the outgoing twin, Regina, and in front of a cafeteria full of classmates, walks up to her and asks her out. This bid is unsuccessful, but Dale’s feelings for Regina only grow. These unrequited feelings set off a tragic chain of events that change Mack and Dale forever, but also reveal to Dale that he possesses a superpower. He can regenerate his limbs and organs.
However, Dale’s superpowers can’t really save him from an abyss of depression and survival guilt. Mack goes off to college, but Dale stays home and becomes a sort of hermit. It isn’t until he sees Raeanne working in a Wal-Mart checkout line that he begins to think about how he might use his gifts to help others.
This is a dark novel, and the relationship that Dale has with Mack is complicated and almost toxic, yet Mack is the one who seems to always be there for Dale—even after they leave small town Illinois for Los Angeles. There’s a lot in this novel to ponder—about friendship, about love, about what being a hero really means, and about how violence begets violence. It’s not a comfortable read, but it is a very compelling one.