In JONATHAN EVISON'S quirky debut novel "All About Lulu," the first thing Will Miller does is warn the reader: "I'm going to give you all the Copperfield crap, and I'm not going to apologize for any of it." It's a spunky move, both alluding to and rejecting Holden Caulfield's opening line from "The Catcher in the Rye." With a wink, Evison lets us know that he's aware of the territory, and that he's setting out in a different direction.
Will, the wimpy vegetarian son of a world-famous bodybuilder, is almost 8 years old when his mother dies of cancer. His twin brothers, three years younger, grow into the spitting image of their father: "the aquiline nose, the blue eyes, the turgid smile. And, like their father, they are bodybuilders -- tireless self-improvers striving for physical perfection." Instead of muscles, Will ends up with a scratchy voice that renders him reluctant to speak. All of this contributes to his feeling that "the universe had forsaken me, not out of malice, but as an oversight."
Everything changes with the arrival of a grief-counselor stepmother and a stepsister, Lulu, toward whom he immediately develops a romantic obsession. Evison's language is consistently colorful, energetic and earnest, but it doesn't always bring us closer to genuine understanding: "You could string adjectives together like daisy chains and not describe Lulu. Verbs came closer: soaring, crashing, yearning, laughing, dreaming, kissing. But metaphors came closest: Lulu was a white-hearted starburst, a silver-crested wave. Lulu was the sound electricity makes."
At the beginning, at least, the obsession is mutual. To communicate secretly, Will and Lulu develop a language of their own, combining blinks and squints with "the most beautiful words we could think to begin sentences with." They become an inseparable and insular duo, showing each other their naked bodies and dreaming up plans to travel around the world. Then, the summer after sophomore year, Lulu departs for cheerleading camp.
She returns "distant and cheerless," having jettisoned their secret code, claiming not to be herself anymore. From here on out, she is an enigma, constantly changing her persona, acting hot and cold with Will, seemingly needing him while also pushing him away.
The situation opens up a space for yearning and self-deprecation, territory Evison explores with real humor and pathos, sometimes simultaneously, as when Will watches Lulu working with a special education student: "I stood there for ten minutes fogging up the window, wishing I were retarded, and I sensed that the terrible day had finally arrived when Lulu could no longer feel my eyes upon her."
The question of what happened to Lulu while she was away at camp becomes a central narrative thread, but it's a mighty thin one. Not because a novel cannot be structured around such a question, but because as "All About Lulu" proceeds, the question doesn't evolve. Lulu's behavior, capricious and then increasingly self-destructive, becomes more complicated without becoming more complex. The question is answered at the end, naturally, and the retrospective light casting back 300 pages makes everything clear, if not entirely convincing.
The novel's main weakness is that in keeping Lulu's secret a secret, Evison ends up creating less a character than a cipher. Despite the promise implicit in the book's title, we don't really get to know Lulu.
Even though Will keeps a diary he calls his "Book of Lulu," "nothing less than a catalogue of everything even remotely Lulu: what she wore, things she said, things she liked, things she hated -- a Farmer's Almanac of Lulu," the passages Will shares are spare and brief. They left me wishing I could sit down with the "Book of Lulu" itself. Perhaps then Will's obsession would feel more like complicated and doomed love and less like simple and overblown fixation.
At its core, "All About Lulu" is a bildungsroman, the story of Will's letting go of his adolescence and finding his way in the world, from a scratchy-voiced herbivore to a hot-dog-hawker and radio personality. Along the way he must contend with his father, stepmother, growing brothers (one fart-joke-obsessed, one proto-goth), Lulu's ex-boyfriends, his co-workers at Fatburger, an unstable high school counselor, a college philosophy professor and an ex-Soviet apartment manager with a dream to open a hot dog stand on Venice Beach.
Evison's affinity for the oddball goes a long way toward keeping the book entertaining; unfortunately, as the coming-of-age theme becomes dominant, so does a sense that the novel is biding its time. Philosophical vignettes of Hume, Kierkegaard and Descartes feel authentic to Will's college experience, but I'm baffled as to how they contribute to the book as a whole. And several times toward the end, the narrative leaps forward, a technique that only slackens the accumulated emotional tension. The result is a feeling of weightlessness, a sense that the book is slipping away right when it should be crashing down on our heads.
"All About Lulu" has its moments, and Evison's writing possesses a verve and vitality that make you want to dismiss the book's structural flaws and simply read from one page to the next. In the end, though, the first line's warning proves apt. Having set out in a different direction than Salinger, Evison ends up at a different destination: While "The Catcher in the Rye" could be called a literary novel masquerading as young adult fiction, Evison's book might better be described the other way around.