If you enjoy not-so-simple tales of mythical beings and talking animals, deadly dominant wizards and cheese-gobbling goblins, rapier-wielding rodents and long-slumbering monstrosities, Benjamin Wachs’ latest novel The Deeds of Pounce delivers.
Even if that’s the kind of book you’d never read, or gave up on long ago, Pounce is essential reading for a winter’s eve or two. Because If you’ve ever thought that something dark and dangerous lurks beneath the sophisticated sheen of modern American cities (beyond the perils of gentrification and spiraling costs of living), or if you think a conniving rabbit may make a better leader than half of our elected officials, then The Deeds of Pounce is a book you’ll want to engage. Underneath its adventurous exterior lies a work of understated but potent excavation of the political, ethical, and spiritual crossroads that characterize modern American life.
Set in modern day San Francisco, the book unfolds as a fable-istic whodunnit (or perhaps, a why-he-dunnit). Its mystery evolves by following the exploits of goblin comrades Gherin and Leptin as they track the heroic mouse warrior Pounce, as fierce a fighter as he is tiny in stature. Pounce has been crisscrossing the city, collaborating with a cadre of human allies to destroy mythological creatures a million times his size, creatures that have lived deep beneath the city streets for eons. They are symbols of the evils of the world, and Pounce sees it as his divine mission to wake them proactively and kill them mercilessly, thus freeing the world from their presence.
Naturally, his goblin pursuers are of a different mindset, desperate to keep the beasts alive. But no, not for the reasons one would normally assume. Any kind of “normal” assumption is far too simple for Wachs’ mind. The wizened soldier Leptin and his spoiled, upper-crust protege Gherin, who very well may have avoided the numerous Goblin Wars due to of bone spurs, pursue Pounce with their own sense of nobility and purpose. It’s a testament to Wachs’ sophistication that it’s hard to tell who’s right and who’s wrong—if such simple dualities are even relevant in the alterna-fact quagmire of the 21st century. Pounce is no simple fantasy novel or morality tale or Harry Potteresque phantasmagoria. While it will thrill fans of those styles, it also exists as a book for people who hate those kinds of books—while still wishing, as almost everyone does, that the world felt a little more magical and mysterious, as opposed to nonsensical and chaotic. On one level, Pounce is a children’s book for adults who no longer read children’s books, but who wish they still could with the zeal and beginner’s mind of the child.
Within its 200 pages, the book elegantly investigates themes beyond the obvious explorations of friendship and loyalty one would expect. To name just a few: the creeping rot of human “high culture” and its slippery slope of seduction; the allure of tribalism amidst a world of plurality; and, perhaps most tellingly, the difficulty of determining good from evil in a postmodern world of moral relativism. Who are the real heroes, Pounce or his hunters? It’s a question Wachs wisely avoids answering, but one that readers can’t avoid. And Wachs’ spiritual concerns arise too, at least in passing, from subtle Buddhist musings to a reimagining of the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice in the context of Dr. Dee’s alchemical concerns. But make no mistake, the deeper thematics are the undergirding, and readers can largely engage or ignore them, based on personal whim. The Deeds of Pounce is no pontificating chore. It’s a rollicking adventure.
And while it’s full of local references, particularly a set piece staged in the bowels of San Francisco’s ornate city hall, this is no insider’s book (though its political overtones may resonate more with those who have at least a passing knowledge of the often absurd politics of Baghdad by the Bay). Like a scene from a classic Disney film, the book’s “battle of city hall” explodes in vivid technicolor language, a testament to Wachs’ verbal prowess. Pounce’s witty ripostes complement his rapier-craft beautifully, as he slices and dices his way through many enemies and several pages of the book. It’s not a comedic scene per se, but it’s one that had me laughing out loud at the sheer exuberance of it all.
Pounce would make a great gift for readers across the age spectrum. It’s a book for adults no doubt, because its sophistication and intensity transcend the stereotypes of the YA genre, but it’s also fine for the younger ones on your list. So much of it will stick indelibly with them, but it won’t be a scarring impression. And as they absorb the undercurrents beneath the adventure, both adults and kids will benefit from this profoundly human story, one with so much to say about our loves and losses and longings, our regrets and desires and wishes—even if its protagonists are a talking, swashbuckling mouse and his two whiskey-chugging, cheese-gobbling goblin stalkers.
Eric Myers writes and teaches in San Francisco—and sometimes Columbus. He is the cofounder of MadLab Theatre and Burning Man Information Radio.