B.H. James, a high school English teacher from California, wrangles his knowledge of teenagers into the inventive coming-of-age novel Parnucklian for Chocolate. In stark, self-conscious language, the author navigates parenting, psychiatric facilities, and what it means to not quite belong in your family—a feeling not alien to most teenagers.
Protagonist Josiah is part Parnucklian. At least this is what his mother has told him his entire life—that she was abducted in college by his alien father, who is from the planet Parnuckle. The novel opens on the heels of Josiah’s sixteenth birthday, as he moves back in with his mother and her new fiancé, Johnson Davis, after having spent time in a group home. Suddenly, Josiah is expected to learn new habits and explain his oddities in what is considered a “normal” home life:
Josiah first met Johnson Davis’s daughter Bree four days after moving into the home of Johnson Davis. Having decided at eleven years old that if he ever grew up and had people that he loved he would live with them all together in his home, Josiah thought that Bree, whom he thought was pretty, liking the way that she looked in her soccer uniform, may be someone he could love and have a family with and live all together with in a home, and by the end of that night, he was sure of it.
Josiah craves a sense of normalcy, and yet there is no hope of him getting it in this “family.” What is most amusing and ironic about Parnucklian for Chocolate is how Josiah ends up being the least alien of the characters. His mother’s inability to parent—the invention of Parnuckle in the first place—makes her one of the most bizarre characters in the novel. She completes Josiah’s homeschooling homework, only feeds him chocolate (because that’s what Parnucklians eat), and slaps him when he uncovers details about his real father. It’s no wonder that Josiah imagines that his real mother must be a Parnucklian goddess that looks like Cher.
Johnson Davis, the strict, “normal” stepfather, is almost robot-like in his regimen and “[l]ike the Greeks” in his child-rearing practices. Josiah was put in a group home for indiscriminately peeing on things around the house, and though his chocolate diet and lack of knowledge about the English equivalent for words (he thinks an Andre Agassi is a penis, for example) make him odd and amusing, in the end James reveals that Josiah may have the clearest sense of reality, after all. Imagination is Josiah’s most powerful protection; where his mother uses imagination to hide the truth about Josiah’s father, Josiah uses his imagination to make the most of his present situation.
Though Josiah is quirky, the greater interest of the story lies in Bree’s character, Josiah’s soon-to-be stepsister and love interest. She is evidence that even the “best” home life can alienate people. She is at times seductive, manipulative, cunning, bold—all to mask her vulnerability. Yet she is selfish, and by the end, no different than she was before. Bree is an Eve character—tempting and raw, but sex seems to be her only weapon, which lessened my empathy for her. In constructing Bree, it would have enhanced her character to use more than just sex and smoking pot to get across the message that she is stumbling through life trying to find her place. There is little original about Bree’s character, though her quick quips and colorful personality at least make scenes with her interesting.
James writes in long, meandering sentences, and the use of Johnson Davis’s full name and the technique of writing about things through an outsider’s perspective lend themselves to this tale of an “alien” child. However, some of these techniques felt like tricks, and though used consistently, were overwrought. In a short story, James’s style would have thrived and heightened narrative tension, but in the novel length they were exhausting. There is almost a staccato-like rhythm to James’s sentences, and repetition of names and information is reminiscent of Gertrude Stein, perhaps. This repetition, and distance that it creates, allows James to reveal disturbing scenarios—like the truth about Josiah’s father and mother—as though he is holding them out at a safe distance with a pair of tongs, far enough away to be examined without being discomfiting.