I have somewhat complicated – mostly positive, but still complicated – feelings on the Boone Shepard Trilogy. There’s so much in those books that I’m retrospectively proud of and I remain deeply fond of their world, characters, and inherent quirkiness. But there’s a lot about them that, I think, remains indicative of them being early career projects. A huge reliance on coincidences. Some pretty unpleasant tropes. A wild, disjointed structure that often leaves individual novels feeling like five different books in different genres mashed together. Some tricky tonal unbalances. Clunky prose. And so on.
I stand by the series, for all its flaws. I remain proud to call Boone Shepard my first novel and I’ve always said that the second book, Boone Shepard’s American Adventure, is tied with The True Colour of a Little White Lie as my personal favourite of my books so far. But with the decision to revisit American Adventure ahead of its five-year anniversary came a slight nervousness. I had not read it since its release and in the intervening years my career, life, and writing style have changed drastically. Which left me wondering if American Adventure would be one of those cases where I kind of wished I’d left the past in the past.
I was also a little worried that my fondness for this particular book was coloured by the thrilling period of my life I’ll always associate with it, the time of being on a major podcast with creative friends who daily inspired me, of regular involvement in ramshackle theatre productions, of that rocky but fun career stretch where I’d had just enough validation to know I wasn’t a hack but hadn’t yet managed to leverage what I had into a sustainable income.
American Adventure, in its content and development, feels symptomatic of that time. I’d written the first draft of it along with the other Boone Shepard books in 2014, but while the others hit shelves polished and fleshed out and refined but more or less the same as those original manuscripts, American Adventure was the problem child. The initial draft was a mess, alternatingly tedious and frenetic. It made no sense and was no fun to read. Looking at the text after the release of the first Boone Shepard, my publisher and I had no idea how to salvage it but were essentially locked in to doing so by the cliffhanger ending of the previous book.
The only way to make the story work was a total rewrite, one I was confident I could do because I’d come to understand that the tone this book needed was that of the Boone Shepard short stories I periodically wrote –rollicking, winking, warm-hearted fun with a melancholic sting. Without the pressure of establishing the world and characters, American Adventure could be that book. It just needed a complete overhaul to pull it off.
I was given a month to do so. And man I still think so warmly back on that time; tearing through the text with the help of my writer friends and in doing so finding what would end up being the central theme of the book – that we all make mistakes, we all fall short, but with determination and the help of those around us we can make good. It was tough. It was terrifying. But my god, it was fun.
Of course, it tracks that such a dizzying, exhilarating creative process would leave you feeling pretty positive about the final product, but that’s in no way indicative of whether it’s actually any good. The first Boone Shepard had plenty of critics. It also had plenty of passionate fans who told me regularly how much they loved it. American Adventure never got such a fervent response. In fact, despite it being my personal favourite of the three books, it tends to be written off in what limited discussion the series still gets as the awkward middle child, the slight, goofy detour between the gothic darkness of Boone Shepard and the emotional conclusion of The Silhouette and the Sacrifice. I can see why. American Adventure is a higher stakes story than the first, but it doesn’t feel like it. It also, as the middle part of the trilogy, feels like it doesn’t leave that much to be resolved in part three. This was deliberate, a kind of insurance policy in case we didn’t get a third book, but I wonder now if that choice somewhat undermined The Silhouette and the Sacrifice, leaving readers with the sense that they’d reached the end of the journey already.
But the biggest and most pleasant surprise of revisiting the book was how much I still love American Adventure. Re-reading the first Boone a few years back, I enjoyed it but found it to be a book trying to do way too much at once. American Adventure, by contrast, feels very intended. Despite the chaotic and convoluted conspiracy at the heart of it, there’s a focus that the first one lacks, a clear journey Boone has to go on that manages to ground the story despite all its absurd indulgences. And that journey, linked so directly to what I was trying to say and explore, gives it a cohesiveness that I’m not convinced its siblings share.
One of the things I think certain readers responded to in the first Boone Shepard was that, despite its humour and oddness, there is a sense of epic tragedy running through the whole thing; whether it’s Boone and Marbier’s doomed love story, the climactic rebellion of a downtrodden people, or the tortured conflict between Boone and his equally time-displaced brother Darius. But all of those aspects meant that the aforementioned humour could, at times, feel out of place. I wanted the Boone series to be quirky and funny with an underlying darkness, but the first book was almost the reverse of that. American Adventure gets the balance way more right. Sure, the fate of the world is at stake and people die because of it, but all that tends to happen off camera. It allows the tone to remain jaunty with moments of introspection. It also allows the humour to feel like it belongs. And I have to say, re-reading this book I laughed a lot. I’d forgotten most of the jokes or one liners or insane turns of events, and as such many of them came as pleasant surprises. The back-and-forth banter between Boone, Promethia Peters and Oscar Wilde is, I think, a heap of fun. The scene where an oblivious Boone meets Elvis Presley and he speaks only in Elvis quotes might be my peak as an author. The nonsensical send ups of cowboy archetypes, for me, land well.
But what I think really makes American Adventure stand out among so much of my other work is its heart. At the centre of it is a group of disparate misfits who squabble and bicker and complain about each other but remain deeply connected. They’re all a bit messed up in their own ways, but together they form a strange little surrogate family. They support each other. They forgive each other. They are prepared to give up everything to rescue each other. Some of the best scenes are just these characters sitting around, talking and pretending not to enjoy each other’s company when it’s just so obvious that there’s nowhere they’d rather be. A lot of my work – and characters – can come off as hard edged and cynical. My plays tend to be full of snarky, childish, unpleasant manipulators. Even ostensible heroes in my more recent work, like Maggie or Jack Carlin, are violent, cold-blooded killers. Nelson in The True Colour of a Little White Lie, probably Boone Shepard’s closest cousin in terms of voice and personality, stumbles through self-centred choices that hurt a lot of people, even if he’s fundamentally not a bad kid. But there’s a decency to the ensemble of the Boone series, a shared love that they’re never quite willing to admit to but is always there in every interaction and hard-won victory.
I don’t think I’m afraid to be critical of old works, but I didn’t expect to find so little that I disliked in American Adventure. Which isn’t to say that problems aren’t there. The prose can veer into stilted and perfunctory at times. The opening stretch is a little slower than I remembered; it takes a while for the book to get going which, given it’s essentially a novella, isn’t ideal. However once the adventure kicks off in earnest it doesn’t really slow down. I read the first third of the book a few weeks back then got distracted by other things, not feeling all that compelled to pick it up again. I finally did the other day, intending to read over just a few more chapters, and ended up finishing it in one sitting. The second half absolutely moves – there’s always another action scene or funny encounter or revealing heart-to-heart over every page. There was some criticism on release that it was a little too fast paced, but I’m not sure I agree. American Adventure was supposed to be free wheeling and fun, and for my money it achieves that while still having time to breathe and, more pertinently, be about something.
For what is ostensibly a children’s book, American Adventure asks a lot of big questions without easy answers. Can we ever be more than the sum of our worst moments? Is there any such thing as heroes or are even the best of us just bumbling along trying and failing to do good? Are virtuous actions undermined by selfish intentions? The book makes time to consider all of these things and, crucially, link them to Boone’s emotional journey and its outcome.
I can’t speak for a reader’s experience of American Adventure. There could be people rolling their eyes at this retrospective, remembering only a flimsy, badly constructed book. In the end, every work lives and dies on the feelings of its readers. But listening back to an in-depth interview I did about the book at the time of release, I was struck by how much I found myself nodding along with my 2017 assessment of it. The thing about subjectivity is that, in the end, you can only base your feelings about your work on how well you think you achieved what you set out to. For better or worse, American Adventure is exactly the book I wanted to write at the time. It left me excited to re-read The Silhouette and the Sacrifice, largely because it also reminded me of how much I love these characters and how lucky I was to get to tell their story through to its end. The Boone Shepard Trilogy might be a long way from perfect, but to me American Adventure is the one I got right.
Writing words about writing words.