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Mr. Smith Goes to the Fifth Dimension

Lee J. Nelson's The Boy in the Box

There's a well-known Russian novel that begins with a disturbed young man stepping out of his apartment on an oppressively hot summer day. He wants to avoid meeting someone (his landlady) on the stairs, and he succeeds. Then there's an American novel that begins with an unusual young man stepping out of his new apartment on an oppressively hot summer day. He encounters someone (the janitor) in his hallway and has to squeeze by him. Both men ultimately embark upon feverish psychological journeys (although one man is a little wackier than the other). The former is Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The latter is Lee J. Nelson's new novel, The Boy in the Box.

Mr. Smith is an amusingly eccentric industrial designer from the West Coast who is in New York for a job interview. While in town, he is staying at his sister's vacant (abnormally vacant, even) apartment in Queens. The first person he encounters in the building is a creepy janitor of ambiguous ethnic origin who has an ambiguously creepy interest in Smith.

Later that first night, Smith hears something out in the street in front of his building, looks out the window, and sees a police car and the creepy janitor being handcuffed. It is the witnessing of this event, plus a report on the TV news that evening of a missing boy, plus the janitor's babbling to Smith earlier that day in very broken English, something about a naked boy in a box, that ignites Smith's imagination for the rest of the novel.

And of course, the realm of the imagination, as Rod Serling once told us, is just another term for The Twilight Zone. For the majority of the novel we share in Smith's bizarre, Twilight Zone-esque experience of feeling like everyone in the city is in on something. There is a distinct sense, and occasionally even clear insinuations, of Smith being the odd man out; something is going on, and he is not a part of it - - he's just a clueless, innocent man who walks in on all this. Right?

Maybe not. Though Smith does appear to us most of the time as a socially inept, fastidious intellectual -- a weirdo, but an innocuous weirdo -- on more than one occasion he seems to switch from being a victim of the Twilight Zone to one of its conspirators. For example, he becomes not merely concerned about the boy in the box, but fixated on the boy in the box, in a graphic, slightly pathological way.

He corners both a waitress at a neighborhood diner and a female neighbor in his apartment building about the hypothetical boy, frightening them both, and saying to the first, "There may be a boy trapped in a box. Don't you care about that?÷ He's suffocating. His bones are broken. His eyes are filled with pus, yet he still looks through the slats÷ He's probably naked, probably completely naked. And there remains the distinct possibility that he's been castrated as well." Such details are not only unnecessary (not to mention speculative), they are malicious.

Additionally, while in the beginning Smith urges the janitor to contact the police if there really is a boy in a box somewhere, Smith himself ends up actively avoiding contacting the police for quite a while, even drawing inquiries from others (including the police themselves) as to why he hadn't contacted them yet. It is behavior like this that make us reconsider Smith's nature, his innocence, his intent -- or maybe just his mental health.

What with its Orwellian, Kafka-esque, Dostoevskian, and Twilight Zone elements (or even direct references), The Boy in the Box is not exactly original. But our oddball hero Mr. Smith manages to give a new slant to old philosophical questions (e.g. the nature of reality, determinism, fate, coincidence and personal responsibility), making this novel unique in its derivativeness. Brainy, yet a gripping page-turner, The Boy in the Box turns the idea of "originality" on its head, presenting themes that should be familiar but leaving us disoriented all the same.

The Boy in the Box
by Lee J. Nelson
Bridge Works Publishing Company; ISBN: 1-882593-66-9
Hardcover: 210 pages (January 2003)

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