All week long I have been posting Cool Book Alert pieces about books that are either recently out or coming out in the near future. But since today is my last-day covering this week I wanted to do something different by focusing on a work that is considerably tougher to track down. I'm talking about Joseph Torcia's The Kryptonite Kid. Originally published in 1979, it is an epistolary novel set in the late 1950s in which young Jerry Chariot copes with problems at home and in the strict Catholic school he attends. Unlike a more famous epistolary novel, Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower, there is no last-minute salvation to be found here. This isn't a spoiler per se, but rather a warning. The feel-good novel of the year this ain't. From pretty early on it seems evident that Jerry isn't destined for happiness. His life consists of dealing with his seemingly uncaring parents, a dismissive order brother and a sister who is entering a convent. He's not smart, or funny or particularly lovable. But as Torcia's dialogue -- a reflection of the teeter totter ride between joy and sorrow that childhood is -- remind us, he is real. Think a less disturbed version of Chris Ware's Rusty Brown character. Jerry's school days are spent with his (only) friend Robert and trying to avoid brutal punishments from his teacher, the ruthless Sister Mary Justin. Jerry's sad, mad world is one which he can flee from only by immersing himself in Superman comics. The problem with such escapism is that Jerry comes to believe that the Man of Steel is real, so he begins writing letters about his life to him -- ones which are never answered, nor could they be. Despite this fact, Jerry's faith in his idol is just as strong as his nun's is for her savior. As his feelings for Superman grow, he becomes fanatically obsessed with getting his attention. So when he decides to literally fly away from his problems, he discovers the cost of his misguided devotion, and, most surprisingly, how true heroism can come from the most unlikely places.
The above is just a rudimentary, Cliff's Notes' style overview that doesn't begin to do justice to the tale's subtleties. Throughout the book, Torcia laces Jerry story with elements that give insight into his life and possible future. These include the suggestion that Jerry's all-consuming interest in Superman is a reflection of his budding homosexuality, as well as his dreams of Robert dying in battle (in Vietnam). On the surface, Jerry's tale is a cautionary one about misguided faith and shattered innocence. Yet its hard to ignore the religious subtext that flows throughout the book before reaching a crescendo in its climax. Is Torcia saying that man should only place his faith in God? Or is his ending proof that we should only look to ourselves and our loved ones for guidance. Or is it an indictment of all kinds of faith? There are discussions about humanism vs. religion to be found here if you dig deep enough. And what of Jerry's visions for Robert's grim future? What role do they play in the story? Let your book club chew on this one.
The Kryptonite Kid is out of print and somewhat difficult to find -- even online where used copies tend to fluctuate wildly in price. You can still track it down with some persistence, and if you do make every attempt to get the blue covered hardback version pictured above that contains Torcia's original ending. (Other versions have a softer finale). After publishing one more book, Torcia died in 1996. But The Kryptonite Kid remains. It even was the subject of a 1991 Off-Broadway play, and Torcia had been working on a possible film adaptation prior to his death. Pick it up for an unforgettable, if somewhat chilling, meditation on fandom and the dangers of blind faith.