Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Tribute to Walter Dean Myers from My Seven Year Old Self


Last week, novelist Walter Dean Myers passed away. He has rightly been hailed as a literary icon for his ability to capture the experience of African-American males in books such as Monster and Fallen Angels. My purpose here is not to discuss Myers’ great virtues, but his humble ones. I will leave it those who are actually African-American to speak about how Myers influenced them as African-American readers. As I am male, though, I will address myself to how Myers has influenced me as a male reader. His young-adult book The Legend of Tarik was one of the first novels I ever read and certainly the first that I felt really strongly about. That the book drew my seven year old self across the then intimidating length of nearly 200 pages and brought me back to read it again repeatedly should be sufficient praise. In third grade, we were able to earn the privilege of reading to the class. I used the opportunity to subject the class to my reading from Tarik. I confess that I owe an apology to my classmates, not for my choice in books, but for my zeal in pressing it upon them.

I have no intention of praising Tarik as great literature let alone to claim it as grounds for declaring Myers a great author. The fact that Myers has become a part of the canon of American literature, with his books commonly used in school curricula, was not something I was aware of until I was an adult. No teacher made me read Tarik; it was something I bought for myself at a school book fair. What are Tarik’s virtues? The ultimate standard to judge fantasy is that used by the grandfather in Princess Bride: “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love [and] miracles.”

To be fair, Tarik does not have much in the true love department beyond Tarik being assaulted by a she-demon, who attempts to tempt Tarik to kiss her. Tarik does gain a female friend later in the book, but that is quite platonic. That being said; my younger self had yet to see such an absence of romance as a flaw. What Tarik has in spades are revenge and fighting. Tarik’s family is massacred at the beginning by an evil warlord, El Meurte. A pair of wise men save Tarik, train him to fight and send him on a series of quests for objects of power to aid him in seeking revenge. The second half of the book consists of Tarik pursuing his enemy, hacking his way through plenty of bad guys, even as he suffers loses along the way, while building up to the final confrontation.

Does any of this make Tarik great literature? Part of my present self is inclined to say no. There is no subtlety to the characters nor is there much rhyme and reason to why things happen. Tarik is given his motive in the beginning and then a series of set pieces that serve as obstacles to pass through before battling the big boss. In essence, this is a video game plot. As we are dealing with fantasy, it is hardly a criticism that Myers uses the tropes of questing and the arch-villain. His sin, though, is that there is nothing particularly creative in how he uses them.

On behalf of my younger self, let me respond that Myers wrote the book that I needed to read at the time I read it. If there is nothing sophisticated with the characters and plot, it is because I was being given the chance to experience hating someone and going on a thrilling ride leading to his defeat without any needless clutter. I have no problem defending action movies simply as action movies because they provide great fight sequences and the fighting in Tarik is certainly entertaining. If Myers shamelessly uses fantasy tropes, I needed to learn those troupes in their clearest possible form so I could appreciate other works of fantasy. Tarik was a good toy for me. It was fun to play with and, even if I did not realize it at the time, I absorbed something valuable regarding the mechanisms of good story telling. As with all great toys, adults mock them at the risk of revealing that they flunked childhood and need to be held back a grade.

Maybe the most important feature weighing in favor of Tarik is simply that I remain emotionally invested in that book. A large part of that is precisely that this is a book that I discovered for myself and was never popular enough to be widely read by others. Thus, Tarik remains mine as if Myers personally read me this story. I almost selfishly wish that Myers never became famous, certainly not for other books. I want him to remain the author of Tarik, the book that made me a fantasy reader. Those fans of Myers who wish to take him from me for a higher purpose are free to try.   

Tarik is not the only book I have read that is special to me precisely because of its lack of popularity. Another example that comes to my mind is Grace Chetwin’s Gom series, a discussion for perhaps another time. So I ask readers, not what are your favorite books, but which books hold a special place in your heart precisely because few people have heard of them?              

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