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‘Mint’ orphan’s tale has humor, realism

SHARE ‘Mint’ orphan’s tale has humor, realism

THE MIRACLE LIFE OF EDGAR MINT; by Brady Udall; Norton, 423 pages; $24.95.

The first comparison that comes to mind is Mark Twain telling the classic story of "Huckleberry Finn." The second is J. D. Salinger, who wrote "Catcher in the Rye," published in 1951, the quirky and honest story of a young man named Holden Caulfield.

Let's hope the strange and imaginative story of "The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint," Brady Udall's first book, is not his last.

Udall has an unmistakable gift for language, wit and a rich imagination that should make him a highly acclaimed novelist for years to come.

The book is the sad story of Edgar Mint, the son of an Apache teenager and a wannabe cowboy from Connecticut who is destined to end up an orphan — an abused orphan, by just about everybody he encounters.

The defining moment of his life is getting his head smashed at the age of 7 by a mailman's truck. Left for dead by family and others on the reservation, Edgar's life is miraculously saved by an unorthodox doctor named Barry Pinkley.

After a lengthy hospitalization, during which it is discovered that the accident has left him with dysgraphia, the inability to write, he becomes addicted to the typewriter. Edgar is shunted to a miserable school, appropriately named for the bloody general of the Civil War, William Tecumseh Sherman. There, he endures unimaginable harassment, both emotional and physical, forcing him to sneak, spy and steal in return for protection. It is as if he is confined in a strange little prison.

Surprisingly, he is rescued by Mormon missionaries who consider him a perfect match for the church's Indian placement program. With encouragement of the missionaries, Edgar repents of his sins and is baptized a Mormon. Then, he is sent to be part of the troubled Madsen family, which has taken in children since the tragic loss of a baby boy in a bizarre crib accident.

At first, Edgar is deliriously happy sleeping in a soft, clean bed, enjoying a new wardrobe and eating a variety of wonderful food. But the teenage daughter and younger son are angry about his presence.

Moreover, the death of the baby has made the parents terribly distant from each other. In the meantime, people who harassed Edgar in his early years refuse to disappear from his life, including the doctor-turned-con-artist-and-drug addict who saved his life when Edgar was 7. Besides, Edgar has never lost the incessant desire to find the mailman who ran over his head and tell him he is "all right."

When he leaves the Madsen family, Edgar continues on that intriguing quest, until it leads to fruition.

In some circles, this book may seem controversial — for its depiction of American Indian culture, for various acts of violence inflicted on Edgar or even for the portrayal of an imperfect Mormon family that takes Edgar in. Some may wish the occasionally graphic language had been left out.

But Udall is writing real life here.

Most readers are likely to find a fascinating tale of a young boy facing unusual vicissitudes, told by a truly gifted storyteller. Udall deals with realism mixed generously with humor.

One of the funniest incidents in the book describes two men from Edgar's past posing as Mormon missionaries so they can get into his new Mormon home to see him. The central beauty of the book is that tragedy and humor are so naturally intertwined — just as they are in real life.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com