Bad Questions: A Novel

  • By Len Kruger
  • Washington Writers’ Publishing House
  • 234 pp.

A preteen boy poses endless queries in this quirky 1970s bildungsroman.

Bad Questions: A Novel

What’s more “coming of age” than preparing for a bar mitzvah? What if you’re a 12-year-old boy living in the DC suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, in 1971 whose dad happens to be principal at the local Hebrew school? What if you’re a naturally curious kid obsessed by the kinds of things — Mad Magazine, girls, fitting in, TV game shows, Agatha Christie, Washington Senators baseball — you’ll be able to recall in loving detail 50 years later? What if you’re also making the transition from elementary school to junior high (as they called it back in the day)? What if you’re argumentative, prone to exaggeration, and kind of a nerd?

What if your father suddenly kills himself?

In Len Kruger’s debut novel, Bad Questions, winner of the 2023 Washington Writers’ Publishing House Fiction Award, narrator Billy Blumberg asks lots of questions. Some of them are about the more-or-less-mundane matters of adolescence, and others are far more profound. How do we find forgiveness? How can we know what’s in the troubled hearts of others?

Do you like a lot of questions? Your enjoyment of this novel depends on your tolerance for Billy’s constant querying and theorizing and stretching the truth to get out of trouble. Is it annoying or lovable? Or both? Or neither? Questions about questions may be at the heart of studying Judaism, but poor Billy has them about everything.

Feeling guilty over a minor incident when his father visits his Hebrew class, Billy blames himself, in part, for his dad’s suicide. Left without financial resources, Billy’s mother decides to rent a cheaper place in a Rockville high-rise. One afternoon, already in trouble at his new school, Billy is rescued by his sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Marvin, who takes him to her apartment for a hasty ceremony to cast a few revenge spells.

An ally of sorts, she has a secret connection with Billy’s father and offers some insight into the man. Black candles are lit. She proposes a reckoning. Billy names his enemies — from Bob Short (the nefarious real-life Major League Baseball owner who would move the Senators to Texas) to a list of classmates who’ve done Billy wrong — and a hex is placed on each. The bulk of the novel revolves around the hex list, how it works, who gets punished, why Billy believes in its powers, and how to get Ms. Marvin to uncurse the listees and explain what really happened to his dad.

Kruger takes a switchback narrative approach, flashing back several months to highlight incidents that might explain the suicide, and picking up the main storyline that progresses chronologically over the fall of 1971. In the process, he does a remarkable job recreating the time period and capturing the suburban glory of lower Montgomery County, Maryland.

Largely forgotten figures make cameos: Brooks Robinson and Frank Howard, Uri Geller and Ali MacGraw. Afternoons are built around “Match Game ’71.” There’s plenty of Good & Fruity and bubblegum ice cream, along with long and loving explanations of how preteens once used locker mail (including moments when Billy must play Cyrano to two lovebirds). The difficulties of completing a group report for social studies — when nobody else has done any research on Belgium — are explored.

Let me vouch for the verisimilitude of it all. Billy Blumberg and I are the same age (though I would not want to be 12 again), and there are lots of nostalgic, whimsical remembrances of things past to be found here. True grief is understated, treated subtly, and shoved behind closed doors. Billy’s mother simmers with unspoken rage. His father suffers regret. The boy picks up on the tension, but his parents’ pains are shown aslant, filtered through the self-centeredness of a kid on the cusp of understanding.

Deeper feelings are reserved for the novel’s prologue and epilogue, told from a half-century on. There is a moment of real grace and poignancy in the book’s final pages. Perhaps that was a wise choice, given the more farcical aspects of the plot. Perhaps there are no good answers to bad questions — only a continuous “coming of age,” one granting small mercies to those we lose and to the teenager each of us leaves behind.

Keith Donohue is the author of The Stolen Child and four other novels.

Believe in what we do? Support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus