The Bear Who Broke the World
by Justin McFarr
Published 2017 by Wheeler Street Press
Memories of childhood often evoke the notion of simpler times, this idea that our lives were much less complicated when we were young. The problem is, our lives weren’t any less complicated then, than they are now. Our memories of childhood only seem simpler because they no longer exist—they’re essentially figments of our imagination, shaded by the setbacks we’ve faced during the years spent trying to understand adulthood. The retrospective nature of looking back, this grappling with the intangibility of memory, is the center of gravity in Justin McFarr’s debut novel, The Bear Who Broke the World. The reader is always reminded how strange childhood is, how unsettling the world of adults can be when seen through the eyes of someone gaining a true awareness of the ways things really are.
The novel takes us through the summer vacation of Daedalus Stephen O’Neill, the ten year-old narrator who wants nothing more than to create the kind of memories he can look upon with starry-eyed nostalgia. “My first memory from the summer of 1976,” he says in the novel’s very first line, “should have been the sound of a school bell ringing like freedom or the sun on my face as I jumped onto my dirt bike.” Alas, that’s not in the cards for Stephen (as he understandably refers to himself). His mother, Rose, works long hours to support him and his brother Demian; his father had abandoned them when Demian was a toddler, running off to New York in order to become a poet. The other adult in their house is Rose’s boyfriend Ken, an overeducated Berkeley grad who’d rather spend his days smoking grass, listening to records, and debating American foreign policy than looking for a job—or after two young boys. Stephen resents Rose, as she seemingly loves Ken more than she cares for her sons, and much of the novel revolves around how the ways the boys try to escape their home-lives, while Stephen tries to understand the root of his mother’s neglect.
Because of the themes of love and abandonment, there are many heartbreakingly sad moments in The Bear Who Broke the World, but McFarr softens much of the tragedy through his loving depiction of Bicentennial-era Berkeley, Oakland, and Fremont. Landmarks like the UC Theater, Moe’s Books, and the Claremont Hotel remind us this is an East Bay story, while details such as Wacky Packages, Claremont/Cockrum-era X-Men comics, and the “Proud to Be” PSA’s that used to run on KTVU place us in a world that no longer exists. Stephen’s world is a sad one, but it’s one rendered with careful precision and populated by a compelling cast, such as Seneca Reed, the object of Stephen’s affections, his one chance at the eventful summer every young boy craves. There’s Stephen’s friend Trevor, and Trevor’s brother Art, the burgeoning punk rocker who helps Stephen find an outlet for his adolescent rage. And then there’s the local drug dealer Kirby Johnson, a mysterious figure who haunts the neighborhood like an inversion of Boo Radley and punctures Stephen’s child-like notions of justice.
This book’s one, true strength is McFarr’s clarity of vision. Because The Bear Who Broke the World is a mostly plotless novel with a lot of side characters and digressions, McFarr firmly places the reader in Stephen’s interiority. Stephen is a sufficiently reliable narrator who exemplifies the horror of a childhood in which adults leave children to fend for themselves. We are taken through every painstaking moment of a young boy’s summer vacation, while he unpacks everything that happens to him, painting a very honest portrait of childhood. In short, the reader is in very capable hands. This is a book that not only knows what it wants to be, but what it should be.