John C. McManus, Author . Picador $13 (208p) ISBN 978-0-312-30193-4

It's hard not to pity Loren Garland, the chunky nine-year-old Tennessean at the center of storywriter and Whiting Award–winner McManus's (Born on a Train ; Stop Breaking Down ) affecting but uneven first novel. His callow extended family taunts him about his weight; his resentful single mother, plagued by "gender dysphoria," either ignores or dismisses him; and he has no friends at school. He seldom sleeps, and when he does, he suffers from nightmares. And even the imaginary (or ghostly?) Luther, who intrusively narrates the book, and whom the phobic, pusillanimous Loren considers to be his only pal, albeit an invisible one, demeans him: "You best not die, I said..., they'll have to buy your coffin in the husky section." When Loren's mother unexpectedly disappears, an aunt and uncle grudgingly take him in while refusing to reveal her whereabouts. Loren's foulmouthed, precociously misbehaved step-cousin, Eli, introduces him to wine, and as the essentially orphaned Loren is forced to become more confident, a real friendship blossoms between the two, as does a relationship between Loren and his maternal grandfather, a writer of dirty songs. Loren humorously interacts with his mulish grandfather and the fractious Eli, but his journey toward self-enlightenment is otherwise unmemorable and sometimes quite unbelievable: Loren's familiar with laws of physics, but can't figure out that his mom's gone to get a sex-change operation. Agent, Jane Gelfman. (June)

Reviewed on: 04/25/2005
Release date: 06/01/2005
Genre: Fiction
Ebook - 208 pages - 978-1-4668-3267-1
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