Bonk on the Head

Category: Book
By (author): Ford, John-James
  FICTION / Action & Adventure
  FICTION / Canadian
  FICTION / General
  FICTION / Literary
Audience: general/trade
Publisher: Nightwood Editions
Published: June 2005
Format: Book-paperback
Pages: 282
Size: 8.50in x 5.50in
Our Price:
$ 20.95
In stock

Additional Notes

From The Publisher*Winner of the 2006 Ottawa Book Award for English FictionBonk on the Head is the fictional account of a young man's strange and gruelling journey through military indoctrination, and the strange and gruelling family life that drives him to it. Author John-James Ford, himself a graduate of Royal Military College, presents a spirited coming-of-age novel that is at once both gripping and hilarious. The unforgettable Verbal Kempt, boy-man, flits between deranged assaults on the senses and sensory deprivation, between memory and amnesia, to define and redefine his own understanding of freedom and personality. His dilemmas take the form of private wars inside and outside the skull--embroiling family, institutions, landscape and language.
From The Publisher*"Bonk on the Head is a tour of duty and a tour de force." --Mark Anthony Jarman"[An] assured, often disturbing debut." --Jim Bartley, The Globe and Mail
Review Quote*Freaks like us
Saturday, August 20, 2005

You've heard of army brats. Gertie Kempt takes the figurative out of the brat. Throbbing along the back roads of the Ottawa Valley in her dad's muscle car, she's a brash and reckless mentor to her malleable younger brother, Herb.

In John-James Ford's assured, often disturbing debut -- a boot-camp bildungsroman -- Herb's journey toward a soldier's manhood is impelled largely by deep and ambivalent love for his rebel sister.

Their father (the "Kernel") is a coiled spring, unwound nightly by gin. Tense after a long day at National Defence Headquarters, he erupts in upper-case during dinner: "THERE'S ABSOLUTELY NO REASON YOU NEED TO USE SO MUCH MILK ON A DAILY BASIS." Alternatively, he's quiet and menacing: "I'm always at the ready... I can see through the bullcrap, my son."

Gertie is the family peacenik. Rejecting meat, she describes slaughterhouse techniques at dinner. One day she comes home with some liberated chickens. Within days, dad has blown them to red mist with his shotgun. When Gertie checks out, heading to a B.C. commune, Herb loses his anchor on sanity. One night, on the edge, he cranks up the volume on a recording of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.

"I was no longer Ottawa Valley Irish, but came from hard Russian stock... I had no time to stop for fallen comrades... [and] there was Gertie, waiting for me, torn and ravaged and ragged, but weeping tears of joy at this reunion with her brother, her comrade, her poet-warrior."

Tension builds until, late one night, burned toast and too much gin push dad over the edge. Herb stands up to his father's bullying with eloquent indignation and earns a head-first flight into the kitchen drywall. As the crisis builds and explodes, Ford negotiates the labyrinth of emotions with prose that enters the mind, not like fine writing but simply and powerfully, like all the things it evokes: volcanic anger, sorrow, aching regret.

"Our house was a goddamn freakshow," Herb tells us. It's impossible not to agree. What Ford does, with great sensitivity, is to make the freaks recognizable, and their life sentence an extension of the one we know. The book is filled with hyperbole and dark comedy, but not a hint of the cartoonish. Ford couldn't be more attuned to the tragic potential in petty resentments and the inability to express love.

Absurdly, and completely convincingly, Herb attempts to escape his father by embracing the ironclad certainties of the military. After he's accepted at boot camp for officers, the Royal Military College in Kingston, the real nightmare begins.

Things happen at Ford's RMC that, had they been reported from Abu Ghraib, would only have magnified the scandal. But these lost boys are fellow warriors and the shocks have a purpose: the making of unquestioning killers. Can it be as brutal at RMC as Ford implies? Ford makes it seem plausible. He was also a student there. Only graduates -- and those who fled -- will know where his imagination takes over.

Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.
Review Quote*Hemingway, Mailer, Joseph Heller, Tobias Wolff -- Americans have a long rich tradition of writing about the military, but very few Canadians have picked up the torch. John-James Ford tackles the mysteries of the military in stunning style, and reveals the rage, the sex, the hazing, the hatred, and the physical transformation of young recruits at Royal Military College. Bonk on the Head is a tour of duty and a tour de force.--Mark Anthony Jarman
Review Quote*[An] assured, often disturbing debut ... Ford negotiates the labyrinth of emotions with prose that enters the mind ... simply and powerfully, like all the things it evokes: volcanic anger, sorrow, aching regret ... Ford couldn't be more attuned to the tragic potential in petty resentments and the inability to express love.--Jim Bartley, The Globe and Mail
Review Quote*Using a manic, hilarious, and cheerfully vulgar style, Ford recounts the coming-of-age of Verbal Kempt, the son of a well-known army colonel and grandson of a D-Day veteran ... Bonk on the Head is entertaining. Ultimately, Verbal Kempt learns that the price of living up to the expectations of the Kernel is that he must, in effect, become him. Readers must decide for themselves whether he goes through with it.--K. Gordon Neufeld, The Calgary Herald
Review Quote*With its combination of warmth, humour and brutal honesty, Bonk on the Head is just the book to shake CanLit from its safety harness.--Chris Robinson, ..
Review Quote*Verbal Kempt is Holden Caufield for a new generation.--Ottawa Life
Review Quote*... delves deeply into the reality of a military education and, as such, is a finely drawn, often unsettling book.--Andrew Armitage, The Sun-Times
Review Quote*... [B]eautifully and fully written ... Bonk on the Head would be enjoyable to those interested in military tales but equally enjoyable to those who prefer tales of the psyche ... a pleasure to read.--Sondra Fowler, Reader Views