In order to talk about Jen Conley’s latest novel, “Seven Ways to Get Rid of Harry”, it’s probably best to take a short jaunt through the history of what I’ll call the Bad Seed sub-genre.
In 1954, Maxwell Anderson wrote a play titled “The Bad Seed,” in which a little girl named Rhoda killed a bunch of adults who displeased her. Two years later, it was adapted into a movie with a radically different ending; Patty McCormack, then at the start of her long acting career, played the budding sociopath.
The next half-century saw a few other examples of this peculiar “killer kid” subgenre. In 1977, Stephen King published the novel “Rage” under his pulp pseudonym, Richard Bachman; its plot focused on Charlie Decker, a senior at a Maine high school who loses his mind, kills his teacher, and takes his fellow students hostage.
Charlie was a bit older than Rhoda, but the underlying message was the same: The kids had a head full of broken clockwork, and they were willing to express that fact in blood.
In the early 1990s, there was “The Good Son,” in which Macaulay Culkin (his agent perhaps desperate to subvert his client’s wholesome image from the “Home Alone” flicks) portrayed a 12-year-old psychopath with murderous impulses. (The script is credited to Ian McEwan, which is hilarious given his recent, very public disdain of genre.)
But following “The Good Son,” the killer-kid trope seemed to fall into disuse—a casualty, perhaps, of the all-too-real school shootings that began to plague the nation with greater frequency. Bothered by how those school massacres echoed the plot points of “Rage,” King would later let the book go out of print, although you can easily find a copy in a secondhand bookstore (it’s included in “The Bachman Books,” an excellent collection of King’s writings under the Richard Bachman pseudonym).
The protagonist is very smart, very bitter, and, when it comes time to think of ways to potentially “dispose” of Harry, darkly ingenious.
That brings us to Conley’s “Seven Ways to Get Rid of Harry.” Its protagonist, Danny Zelko, is thirteen years old. His life is hell. Not only is he forced to put up with the usual crap at school; his mother’s boyfriend, Harry, is a drunken lout. Even worse, Harry is about to marry Danny’s mother. And that situation simply cannot stand.
…Conley is far too smart to give into the sub-genre’s clichés.
You might think you know where this is going. In a lesser writer’s hands, in fact, the plot would follow every point and twist you expect. The protagonist is very smart, very bitter, and, when it comes time to think of ways to potentially “dispose” of Harry, darkly ingenious.
But Conley is far too smart to give into the sub-genre’s clichés; her writing has an achingly humanistic bent to it, one that won’t allow a hopeless tumble into the abyss. In the meantime, her version of 1980s New Jersey, and the characters who populate it, feel totally authentic to anyone who lived through that period. (For everyone else, well, it feels much more “lived in” than what you’d get from the shiny pastiche of “Stranger Things” or other works that leverage Reagan-era nostalgia.)
It’s worth comparing this book, which is marketed as Young Adult (YA), with Conley’s previous work. If you haven’t read her “Cannibals: Stories from the Edge of the Pine Barrens,” you need to fix that right now. The stories in that book are stunning in their nuance of character, as well as the detailed portrayal of hardscrabble lives in southern and central New Jersey.
She’s written about teenagers before, in ways that are totally real and heartbreaking; once you’ve met Metalhead Marty, the protagonist of one of the highlight stories in “Cannibals,” you’ll never forget him.
That same attention to character and emotion is very much present in “Seven Ways to Get Rid of Harry,” even if the outcomes are more (dare we say) hopeful. Plus, the book moves, and its structure (hinted by the title) is innovative. The plot might take place in the 1980s, but this is how you evolve the Bad Seed sub-genre for the 21st century.