Book Nights: The Heart Does Not Grow Back
The Heart Does Not Grow Back
by Fred Venturini
It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a book on here, mainly because I don’t seek out what I perceive to be a very small subgenre of fiction outside of comic books. It doesn’t help that my past experiences have been bad to mediocre, but I’m never one to turn down something for free so I accepted the offer to review another piece of superhero fiction. The brief description had me interested, it seemed like there were some horror elements and it wouldn’t be a straightforward superhero origin story. What I ended up with was a superhero story that was one of the most original takes on a superhero that I have ever seen, on screen or off. It’s got coming of age elements to it, and the main character is someone who I could relate to probably more than I should care to admit to. It also has some well written moments of tension during some horrifying and gruesome moments that feel all too real. It’s a fairly short novel, and while I expected to take a couple weeks to read through it, I managed to finish it in less than a week.
The main character of the story is one Dale Samson. He’s the quiet kid in school, the one without any friends, keeps to himself, does good in school. He gets picked on occasionally, but isn’t constantly bullied. There’s a chance encounter that brings him into a longtime bromance with a jock named Mack. Their lives get torn apart by an act of violence that ends the life of the one high school crush Dale had. It also reveals his superpower which is a slightly more realistic version of Wolverine’s healing factor. The novel does a great job at keeping things grounded in reality even when the fantastical elements of his abilities start to dawn on him. It’s written in a way that’s much closer to Unbreakable without ever feeling like it’s too self-important for its own good.
Something that’s often difficult to get right is the concept of a likable, but flawed main character. But I think Venturini writes Dale in such a way that he truly wants to make a better life for himself, and help people. The problem is that he’s only in high school/just out of high school and doesn’t really know any better. There’s a great moment early in the book where he’s in middle school and he lets the middle school girls mess with him just because it allows him to be the center of attention for a group of middle school girls. He knows that they’re not being nice to him, but at that age it feels like his only chance. And that’s even carried over to when he gets older and finds a high school girl he knew in the middle of a toxic relationship and he feels like it’s his duty to help her get out of it.
The other main character is his high school friend Mack, who is almost the antithesis of Dale. He’s the star baseball player and consummate ladykiller. With Mack, Venturini gets the chance to bring in a realistic bromance that feels very casual and naturalistic in the way that they talk. There’s just the right amount of pop culture references that don’t make it feel too dated, but help place it in the real world. It also paints a very clear picture of the kind of friendship that tends to fade away after high school, where calls become less and less frequent, and it’s not until circumstances align that brings them back together for the latter half of the story.
What really impressed me the most about this story is that while it is to a certain extent a superhero origin story, it doesn’t fall into any of the tired cliches that I can think of. There’s no equivalent to a costume design montage, there’s no scientifically explained genetically modified insect bite. His powers are revealed after a horrific tragedy that takes him years to psychologically recover from, and the last thing he wants to do is to expose his powers to the world in any superheroic capacity. And when he finally does decide to make his abilities public, he does so in a way that makes the most sense in this day and age: a reality show. Even before that, his first thought on how to use his unique abilities is to sell his own organs on the black market. One of the only things that he ends up doing that falls a bit closely to the typical superhero origin story is his climactic moment of self sacrifice. And even that doesn’t go entirely the way that he plans.
There is a lot to like in this story from start to finish, it paints a richly detailed backstory of the two main characters who always feel like real people even when things happen to them that few people get the chance to expereience. There are a few twists towards the end, but the never feel like a cheat. There’s a visceral rawness to some of the darker moments that the characters go through including a psychotic high schooler that gets snapped over the edge, and an abusive drug-dealing husband. If you’re a fan of superhero stories and want to check out something wildly different, but still familiar make sure you check this one out. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.