Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Books: Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?

One of my favorite parts of childhood was the Scholastic Book Fair. Long before I could simply buy any book I wanted to read, the school book fair represented a wonderful way to wheedle a fiver out of my folks, over and above my usual book allowance. Once at the fair, I could buy any book that caught my fancy. "Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?," by famed children's author Avi, was one such book.

Its story is set in the 1940s, and follows a boy named Frankie. Frankie's overactive imagination is constantly getting him into trouble at school and at home. He's obsessed with listening to radio adventures, and believes (or would like to believe) that the whole world is secretly infested with superspies, cavemen, wistful widows, and dashing heroes. When Frankie's brother Tom comes back wounded from WWII, reality meets fantasy in a jarring way.

"Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?" got my attention because the entire story is told via dialogue between the characters - there's no narrative, no description, not even a sound effect, save for occasional excerpts of classic old time radio shows like "The Lone Ranger" and "The Shadow." That Avi could write an entire novel like this is pretty impressive - guess he didn't win those Newberry awards for nothing.

Without the patina of youth, though, I have to admit that it's a gimmicky book, more like an experiment than an experience. The characters and plot are paper thin, and the book's insistence on only using dialogue can make it pretty hard to read. Still, every time I read it, I'm taken back to a place where the good guys always win, and the bad guys always come back for more...


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