John Michael Manship's "Cambridge Street" is an exercise in stretching the capacity of a reader's compassion. Andrew Laurence, lives on Cambridge Street in Cambridge, MA and appears to be a fairly average kid. He hates school, loves ninjas and is in love with Eleanor, the teacher's aid. As the novel unfolds, we realize that Andrew is a deeply troubled boy without the slightest clue that he's been neglected. His father is a careless parent and a terrible person in general, his mother is absent (Andrew thinks she's a super-ninja on a mission) and his only friend is his mentally disabled brother, Alex. Regular visits to the school guidance counselor assure the reader that Andrew is not only troubled but hasn't the slightest inclination that he is so. Andrew assumes that the world is out to get him and he isn't entirely wrong.
Despite all of the strikes against him, Andrew is an inherently quick witted and kind-hearted kid. Our Byronic hero knows the black and whites of right and wrong but can't see the colors of grey in the spectrum. He is self-aware enough to realize that racism and watching porn (with your kids) is wrong but can't calculate the consequences of dropping a heavy rock through the roof of a Lexus while teaching his brother self-defense. Conversely, Andrew will purposefully withhold important events or facts to manipulate the reader. These calculating acts enable a solid bond based between the reader and the protagonist. Andrew (and Manship) successfully uses this tactic to keep the reader invested in the plotline as if he were afraid the reader would abandon him.
Manship's commitment to expressing the voice of his protagonist and his loyalty to capturing Andrew's universe is admirable and highly effective. Manship's style pays homage to emotionally violent middle school diaries written by many a lonely boy with tenderness and brio. Manship paints Andrew as a boy so neglected by his parents that he lacks basic social and reasoning skills. He sees all interlopers as a potential threat and reacts defensively. Reflexively, the same system meant to support Andrew, assumes his ignorance and aggression is an educated rejection of all assistance. As Andrew bemoans the injustices of a cruel world, we suffer with him.
"Cambridge Street" reveals the sad tale of a little boy just trying to do right by his family while attempting to find his place in the world. Cambridge Street is Andrew's universe - it has a Heaven, the skylines of Harvard and MIT, and a Devil, his father's vengeful wrath. Manship's tender dedication to a troubled, little boy is so rife with sincerity that one wonders if parts of it are autobiographical. This novel ranges from the spectacular to the mundane in its adventures. A good read no matter what your tastes.
John Michael Manship