Bones Buried in the Dirt
by David S. Atkinson
River Otter Press, 2013
ISBN-13: 978-0983553038, 168 pp., $12.99
If you're into biographies of a boy's formative years, Bones Buried in the Dirt might be for you. Although Atkinson professes it to be "fiction," the vignettes, told in a blatant and clear style, of the life of Peter, a young boy growing up in Omaha, could have happened to any boy—or, at least, many boys. The character of Peter manages to be bratty and unlikeable while somehow being relatable, the kind of boy who hits girls and hacks up his neighbor's plywood and then doesn't understand why he's getting in trouble for it.
Atkinson sustains an admirable amount of discomfort throughout the fictional memoir, neither sugarcoating nor shying away from the kinds of memories we don't want to think about—the confusing and homoerotic experiences some boys have with their friends, hanging around with playmates who don't want you around, having to kiss your first "girlfriend" whom you never really found attractive in the first place, et cetera.
Although Atkinson brings a new kind clarity to these relatable experiences by telling them without excessive embellishment, the narrative itself is a road familar to the reader. Almost all of the experiences related to us in Bones Buried in the Dirt are "typical young boy" experiences with "typical young boy" responses to the experiences. Peter has a troublemaking "cool" friend, Steven, who peer-pressures him into fighting other boys. They make plans to run away and never do. They build forts. Peter yells at and chases girls who try to disrupt his forts. A nice contrast to these mostly formative stories is "The Virgin Mary Tree," a vignette where Peter's friend Joy displays a chilling response to the idea of suicide. This particular vignette stands out as one in which the reader may not be sure what will happen next.
The crisp, simple prose is mostly believable as the writing of a prepubescent boy's perspective. Where Atkinson's prose stays plain and unadorned, it very much feels like the simplified thoughts that occur in the mind of a child. However, like many adult writers writing child narrators, Atkinson is sometimes guilty of trying to "condescend" to the voice of his narrator, writing in forced similes like "She just kept looking at me like I had puke all over me" in the chapter where Nicky and Peter are caught "training" to kiss girls. Despite this occasional slip, however, the dialogue between young boys is always snappy and genuine.
Bones Buried in the Dirt is a solid work, and delivers what it promises: Atkinson's fictional memoir embraces those uncomfortable memories that we bury in our brains and try, ourselves, not to dig up.—Jacob Budenz