Being Henry David by Cal Armistead

Title: Being Henry David

Author: Cal Armistead

To be Published: March 1, 2013

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Seventeen-year-old “Hank” has found himself at Penn Station in New York City with no memory of anything –who he is, where he came from, why he’s running away. His only possession is a worn copy of Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. And so he becomes Henry David-or “Hank” and takes first to the streets, and then to the only destination he can think of–Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. Cal Armistead’s remarkable debut novel is about a teen in search of himself. Hank begins to piece together recollections from his past. The only way Hank can discover his present is to face up to the realities of his grievous memories. He must come to terms with the tragedy of his past, to stop running, and to find his way home.

Call me crazy, but I definitely thought that Being Henry David was a fantasy sci-fi type of book. You could imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a tragic hero/coming-of-age novel. I thought for sure that at some point he would realize that he was a time-traveler or an alien or, like, a robot. What I mean is that I didn’t expect this story. I didn’t foresee Hank’s path. I liked that about this book.

So Hank wakes up in New York with a copy of Walden by Henry David Thoreau. So naturally, he finds his way to Walden pond and that’s where everything goes down. I shan’t spoil it for you, in the hopes that you, one day, decide to live deliberately, and choose to begin that journey with Armistead’s fab book (and then you should probably read Walden, seeing as that basically spells out what it means to live simply).

It occurred to me a couple pages in that, to me at least, many YA books are written with girls in mind. Let’s face it, the YA fiction audience is a whole lot of girls. Being Henry David, on the other hand, seems like it was written with a boy in mind. Maybe I only think that because I’m not accustomed to phrases like “my left nut” or maybe I’m just too close-minded. Either way, I loved Hank’s voice and I enjoyed being in his head, even though he’s confused and sad and scared. He offered an entirely new perspective, and that’s what literature is about- helping you better understand the human experience.

But back to the book, Hank’s story is a refreshing one, and adding the unnecessary spin of the transcendentalists really makes it more interesting to read. Armistead totally could have written Hank’s story without the whole Thoreau/Walden aspect, but I’m glad he did as it put a new face to Thoreau and it made the story much more salient and beautiful.

Many scenes are stressful and scary and fast-paced and sometimes that can be hard to portray in a book. You’re not seeing the tension on someone’s face, you’re reading about it. But Armistead wrote these scenes almost entirely out of short and blunt sentences. Often, they were one word, or they didn’t have a subject. Here’s an example; “Tried to sleep on the bus, resting my head on the backpack, but that didn’t work.” It was sentence structures like that that really added to the tension and anxiety of the story, and I thought that was an effective writing method. It kept me hooked, at least.

On the other hand, I wasn’t too fond of the plethora of story lines. There were just too many. I think he could have cut out whole characters and the book would have been better. Maybe if he was writing a 500 page book it would have worked out, but 270 pages is limiting. And it was a bummer, too, because I thought all the characters and story lines were really good, but he didn’t do them justice because he didn’t have enough time. There were so many that I felt like he was loosely tying them up at the end of the story, rather than double-knotting them, secure and tight. I think that if you’re going to get me attached to a character, give her a proper ending, don’t just sort of write her off and basically tell me, “That’s resolved, onto ending the next story line”. I mean, come on, my heart is breaking over here because of this one aspect of your novel and you’re not even going to give me a beat to catch my breath. I’m not sure if this paragraph makes sense. Hopefully, you understand.

All in all though, the parts of the book that I liked, I loved. It’s about a boy who loves too much and tries too hard and has a sad and tumultuous life. Hank’s rediscovery of himself is told through an honest and real voice. Armistead carefully depicts what it’s like to just completely lose it, and the struggle to regain consciousness and to find your grip on your own life. At some point in your life, you have to confront yourself with who you are, what you’ve done and what you’re going to do about it, and Armistead attempts to explain one person’s ways of doing so, as deliberately as possible. Thoreau’s philosophy rings loud and clear in this book, and proves that sometimes, you have to go off into the woods to discover what it means to live.

7 out of 10

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2 thoughts on “Being Henry David by Cal Armistead

  1. faithfunds says:

    I thought you explained a great view about the book and made it sort of intriquing to read. Yet, it falls into a category as many other books I’ve read before like a bad movie with so much impacted until it runs out of steam at the end and leaves you feeling jilted of a great ending. It has to end with someone being vindicated or facing his consequences. The reader needs a sigh of relief for being engrossed in the story. If you know what I mean? Also, I think the author wanted to keep the focus on the main character and have us to see what dynamics he was experiencing interpersonally. You make some really good introjections. We should always take the time to look within ourself and love ourself first to really know how to give love as the character so desparately attempted.

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