Ducks and Dives

Writing in the Washington Post, Ron Charles praises David Mitchell’s new novel, Black Swan Green:

Mitchell’s previous work has shown how much language matters to him, and now he’s created a character who lives and dies on the battlefield of words. Jason speaks with a heavy stammer — the kind of disability, he realizes, that people still feel comfortable mocking, long after they’ve given up making fun of “cripples” and “spastics.” (“It’s easier to change your eyeballs than to change your nickname,” he notes.) Every utterance offers the fresh danger of humiliation among a group of boys on the lookout for any sign of weakness or difference: “My billion problems kept bobbing up like corpses in a flooded city.” Speaking is always an elaborate contest with the “hangman” in his mind, the demon who colonizes the alphabet, grabbing the letter “s” and then “n.” Jason races ahead of each sentence, scanning for forbidden words and making quick substitutions before he gets snared in a contorted pause. “Reading dictionaries like I do helps you do these ducks and dives, but you have to remember who you’re talking to. (If I was speaking to another thirteen-year-old and said the word melancholy to avoid stammering on sad, for example, I’d be a laughingstock ’cause kids aren’t s’posed to use adult words like melancholy.”)

Oh, I want to read this book.