There are 22 separate narrators in Philip F. O’Connor’s latest novel, but for all that complexity, Finding Brendan is an unassuming little love story about a pair of teenage runaways who just happen to be severely retarded.
Eighteen-year-old Brendan Flynn (”Boombah,” as he calls himself) has Down syndrome. His bulky body, lumbering gait, and scrambled talk — ”Bobbedy mombo no go neebadee” — make some people nervous. But it’s Mr. Reed Stark, principal of the local elementary school, whose nervousness turns finally to outright malevolence. When Stark restricts Brendan’s access to the city park — the boy’s favorite stamping ground — he sets into motion a chain of events that turn Brendan first into a vandal, then a fugitive, then a ward of the state, and finally a bridegroom.
If many of the plot twists (Brendan adopted by a tribe of urban foragers, befriended by a Mafia wife, married in the bird cage at the city zoo) seem downright fantastic — well, O’Connor (Stealing Home) has never claimed to be a realist. He’s a tender, even sentimental fabulist — a Ray Bradbury without Martians — unabashedly in love with his decent, boisterous, fallible characters, and charmed by the sounds of their voices.
Occasionally, some of that love seems squandered on blabbermouths who merely grab the mike and ramble on without contributing much. More often, though, each new speaker (now a mental-health orderly, now a special-ed teacher, now a social worker, now a fourth-grade schoolgirl) picks up and briefly carries the narrative forward. In telling a small part of Brendan’s story, they also tell their own.
While nearly all of O’Connor’s ventriloquism is persuasive, none of the voices is as eloquent, as perfectly pitched (or as funny) as Beatrice Dove’s. Diagnosed as ”developmentally disabled” (though she’d rather be called an idiot — ”at least it’s closer to how they treat us”), Beatrice steals the show. She’s vain (”I am the most beautiful person in here”), impulsive, adventurous, reckless, raunchy (everything she knows about sex she learned from watching movies on HBO), and, from the moment she lays eyes upon him in the overcrowded ”community house” where they’re both confined, utterly devoted to Brendan Flynn. Nonetheless, it takes Brendan slightly longer (about five minutes) to get used to the idea of perfect love and wild romance.
But before they can marry, they must first escape. Which, against all odds (and logic), they do. Although O’Connor’s unfortunate fondness for hellzapoppin burlesque turns the nuptial scene into an antic mess (with a psychotic vet running amok while a hoodlum named Salvatore whips out his ”Pistolino” and shoots up the zoo), Finding Brendan ends well, and buoyantly-with the bride and groom huddled together, like Huck and Jim, on a small wooden raft, headed downriver to freedom. A lovely, and lively, American fairy tale. A-