B O O K R E V I E W
This is not the fable you remember
a c o m m o n c u l t u r a l m y t h f a l l s
i n t o d a r k n e w c a v i t i e s
BY S.L. DEEFHOLTS
THE TOOTH FAIRY
By Graham Joyce
1998 ~ Tor Books
$14.95 || paperback
GRAHAM JOYCE'S The Tooth Fairy is a novel that evades expectations -- or at least, it did for me. Instead of being the kind of coming-of-age story that has me yawning and moving on, it held me riveted as I waited to find out what happened to the protagonist, Sam, and his friends.
Though Joyce is often regarded as a writer of horror fiction, The Tooth Fairy is, to my view, far more difficult to classify -- except, perhaps, as magical realism at its most fascinating. For, instead of taking us to familiar territory, with the tooth fairy as a cross between Tinkerbell and the Blue Fairy, Sam’s first encounter with the dental sprite leads us into other realms, adding a new -- but psychologically potent -- facet to the myth of the tooth fairy. In place of the benevolent pixie, we are presented with an androgynous, foul-mouthed goblin who seems as ready to punch Sam out -- or worse -- as he is to give him money in exchange for his tooth.
But, this strange, darkly sexual tooth fairy is bound by a mysterious set of rules, and if it transgresses, it is also forced to make amends. Still, as the years pass, the tooth fairy becomes a figure of destruction and decay to Sam -- a harbinger of dark forces that can far too easily fly out of control and harm or destroy all those in its path. And so, the help it offers -- its small “gifts” and daring rescues, are always double-edged. Sam learns the lesson early on, when he sees the tooth fairy whispering in the ear of his friend’s father.
Later, in an attempt to make amends for one of its transgressions -- which has resulted in damage to one of Sam’s eyes -- the creature tells Sam that he must insist his friend sleeps over on a particular night. We soon learn why -- that night, the friend’s father kills the rest of the family and commits suicide. And so, along with Sam, we come to understand that for most people, the tooth fairy is the darkest facet of insidious doubt, the early start of decay and corruption of innocence. When it doesn’t get its way, the fairy touches those around Sam in retaliation, damaging them in subtle but irrevocable ways.
Like the tooth fairy itself, Joyce as narrator must walk a fine line, but in his case, it is between explication and suggestion. He succeeds, thereby creating a complex work of magical realism at its most resonant by appropriating and re-visioning the shared cultural myth of the tooth fairy. The psychological power that the figure acquires in his deft hands is potent and evocative -- as real to the reader and Sam as is the character of the tooth fairy itself. And yet, like so many of the darkest demons of the psyche, the tooth fairy is also profoundly ambiguous. All the crimes and corruptions it commits can be dismissed as originating from other sources, such that the events of the narrative can be read as completely coherent from a so-called “objective” viewpoint, which would dismiss the tooth fairy as nothing more or less than a metaphor for other things.
It is this narrow tight wire that Joyce walks, without ever losing his balance and banishing the ambiguity that surrounds the figure of the tooth fairy. It is within this slim territory that the writing and the narrative acquire a goodly portion of their power. Yet, the heart of the story truly is the drama and challenges faced by four troubled young people as they grow up and are forced into adulthood, seasoned as it is, with wonderful touches of humor to mitigate the darker moments -- and in truth, it was this tale, as much as any other facet of the compelling narrative, that had me reading late into the night, unwilling to relinquish the fate of the characters for even the short hours of sleep.
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