Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks

Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks is a book I’ve been intending to get around to for years. I’ve seen it in bookstores and always passed it up for some reason. I’d heard a lot of talk about the book, though nothing really that told me anything about the book, so I definitely intended to take a look. Well, now I’ve read it. Though I enjoyed myself, I do have to wonder what all the fuss was about.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for Jennifer Weiner.)

So, what is the book about? Well, we have fourteen-year-old Bone, except that isn’t really his name. He takes that name on later, but we’ll just call him that for sake of clarity.

Bone’s life at the start of the book isn’t too pretty. He smokes a lot of pot. His dad ran off on him when he was really little, his alcoholic step dad molested him, and his mom isn’t worth real much. He ends up getting kicked out of his house (drugs, stealing his mothers coin collection for drugs, etc.) and goes to live with a friend who is pretty much a flunky for some dangerous bikers:

            Russ was my friend. And the bikers were my friends too, even though they were older and kid of unpredictable. Russ had hooked up with them because of his job at the Video Den, which he’d had since before he quit school and got kicked out of his house for doing drugs. But the job was only part-time days and he couldn’t afford the apartment over the store on his own so he offered to share it with this one guy he knew, Bruce Walther who was more or less a friendly biker in spite of how he looked.

            But then Bruce’d started bringing his friends into the place.

            *****

            So they moved in, different ones, four or five of them at a time and sometimes their girlfriends who they called their old ladies or just split-tails or gash but the same ones never stayed long. The squat was this big funky apartment owned by Rudy LaGrande the guy who ran the Video Den with three bedrooms and a bunch of mostly broken furniture. The stove partially worked though and the refrigerator but I remember the toilet was stopped up a lot that winter. Russ still paid half the rent but only got the pantry off the kitchen for his room where he had a mattress on the floor and his old stereo from home and his heavy metal tapes and Playboy collection all of which the bikers used whenever they wanted so Russ kept a lock on the door.

Eventually, as one might expect, Bone and Russ get in over their head with the bikers. As such, they flee. Eventually, Bone hooks up with a cryptic Rastafarian man and even accompanies this guy back to Jamaica:

            After a while we ended up cutting off from the beach and went back into the bushes on a zigzaggy path I’d’ve never seen on my own if I hadn’t been following I-Man. Finally we came to this bamboo fence with a gate that had a red and green and gold lion’s head pained on it and when we went through the date there was this little sandy yard and then I-Man picked up a candle from a shelf beside a door and lit it and went through the door into a bamboo cave which was actually a house, this incredible house with high steep ceilings that were thatched like in Africa and walls built entirely out of bamboo tied together with vines and there were all these little circular rooms and hallways going off of each other in a hundred different directions like and ant farm I once made for school.

            The rooms had bunches of huge pillows placed around the walls for sitting on like in a harem and hammocks for sleeping in and low tables and curtains made out of beads hanging at the doors and pictures of Rasta heroes on the walls like Marcus Garvey who I-Man said was the first Jamaican to figure out how to get back to Africa and Martin Luther King who I recognized on my own and an African king in a suit named Mandela I-Man told me when I said who’s that and of course the head Rasta, Haile Selassie himself, Negus of Bathsheba, Emperor of Ethiopia, Jah Rastafar-i. I was learning a lot.

As one might expect, Bone does some growing up in the book. He goes through some bad shit, matures, and experiences some sadness when he realizes how far he has come from where he started. I won’t go through everything, since that would kind of spoil the book. I think you get the idea.

Now, the story is interesting. A lot of exciting and exotic things certainly happen. Also, the characters are well done. I thought Bone’s voice in particular rang really true to a fourteen-year-old who is something of a delinquent but means well. Still, beyond that, nothing about the book really sang to me. I just didn’t get into it very much.

I mean, what was all the fuss about? Sure, some exciting things happen…just not exciting enough to make this one of the best books of all time. Sure, Bone gets into stuff that no kid of his age should…but it’s not like he’s the first fourteen-year-old to do drugs and get in over his head with dangerous bikers (though the Rastafarians I am less sure about). Still, what is the fuss?

I do want to say, I enjoyed Rule of the Bone. It is very well written and is well worth reading. However, I just didn’t find it to be the life changing experience that all the hype had led me to expect. Being told someone thought it one of the ten best books of all time didn’t help either. It’s good, but it isn’t magic.

Frankly, I would have probably enjoyed Rule of the Bone a whole lot more if I hadn’t heard a word about it beforehand. It is not a bad little book, but I just don’t see why people have thrown all this other stuff on its shoulders. All that expectation kind of ruins the good things that Rule of the Bone has to offer.

Bottom line? Read Rule of the Bone, just don’t go into it expecting that it is going to be one of the best books of all time. Enjoy what it has and leave it at that. Not every book has to be on the list of the best books of all time.

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