DANNY, WHO FELL IN A HOLE, by Cary Fagan

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This slim book if founded on an elegantly simple premise: a boy, Danny, falls in a hole. On the face of it, this may seem like a complete story in and of itself, or at the very most an incomplete one that, once fleshed out, couldn’t possibly be all that interesting. But in the hands of a storyteller as skillful as Fagan, this novel about a boy who falls in a hole is by turns funny, moving, exciting, and fascinating, and never once does it come even close to being boring.

By trapping his main character – and thus himself – in a hole, Fagan earns himself a kind of freedom that a novelist spinning a more complicated, event-heavy story doesn’t have. There isn’t much for Danny to do down there in that hole, and this leaves Fagan free to explore his character with a patience and depth that a lot of writers of kids’ books either don’t get to or choose not to.

Reading DANNY, WHO FELL IN A HOLE, I was reminded of the books of another writer, Cesar Aira, who I’ve posted about here a handful of times. Aira has said many times that he never revises his novels, and that he often purposely writes himself into awkward corners just to force himself to then get out of them. In Aira’s stories, this makes for the occasional disorienting passage, but more often than not, it leads to thrilling, unforeseen twists and moments of surprising, electrifying enlightenment.

Fagan is doing something similar here. But in backing both himself and his main character into a corner, he’s doing more than drawing his readers’ attention to his own skills and ingenuity. He shows, too, what happens to Danny – and, by extension, what can happen to any of us – when we find ourselves in a tough, even seemingly impossible predicament with nothing to rely on but our own two hands and the head on our shoulders.

Before Danny’s fall, we learn just a little bit about his family, his place in it, and his relationship to the various members of it. It turns out he is the sole practical-minded one in a group of creative eccentrics who, even collectively, have only a tenuous grasp on reality. He is known – not un-affectionately, but still – as the single unimaginative, uncreative one of the bunch. Here’s a representative comment, which occurs during a family discussion following Danny’s discovery that his still-happily-married parents are nonetheless splitting up for a year in order to pursue their most-recent artistic dreams, one in Banff and the other in New York City:

“It’s not your fault that you’re not creative like the rest of us . . . To a common-sense person like you,” his mother went on, “this might seem very impractical. But dreams are not practical, Danny. Vincent van Gogh wasn’t practical. Bob Dylan wasn’t practical.”

In a way, Fagan’s book is about proving just how wrong Danny’s mom and dad and older brother are about their younger brother and son. Because sure, Danny can’t really draw and he doesn’t play an instrument, and unlike his parents, he doesn’t have a passion for baking cheesecakes or for singing opera. But forced to fend for himself in that hole of his, he shows us, himself, and also ultimately his family that he is equally – if very differently – as creative as each one of them. Maybe he won’t be the next van Gogh or Dylan, but Danny displays the sort of creativity that, say, a successful engineer or scientist might need.

This book is a good read for anyone and everyone, but especially for kids who perhaps feel out of place in their family or school, and especially especially for any kids feeling frustrated about “not being good at anything” or not knowing what they’ll grow up to be and do. The novel is also a good argument for the potential benefits that can come from properly challenging kids. Obviously, Fagan’s not encouraging any parents or teachers to throw kids in holes and forget about them for a few days. But in presenting kids with difficult problems to solve, in allowing them the time and space to wrestle with thorny questions and tackle trying situations, you give them a chance to push and stretch themselves and, beyond that, to perhaps discover abilities they never dreamed they had.

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