The Heart Does Not Grow Back, by Fred Venturini
Available: Print (new and used) and e-book form
Venturini has explained in interviews that he wanted the wrong guy to get the superpowers. In this darkly comedic tale, Dale Sampson is definitely the wrong guy. We meet Dale as a lonely, nerdy, sixth grader. Unexpectedly, he is befriended by Mack Tucker, the most popular boy in the school, and they begin a close “bro” relationship that lasts through the next decades. Over the years, Dale realizes that he heals much faster than other people. Then, tragedy strikes at a high school graduation party when a sociopathic student goes berserk, killing Dale’s dream girl, Regina, and badly injuring Dale and Mack. Although Dale loses an ear and some fingers, they miraculously grow back within days. Dale’s mom views this as a miracle from God, but Dale isn’t so sure.
After graduation, Dale continues his lonely existence until he runs into Regina’s twin sister, Raeanna, and immediately falls for her, even though she has an abusive husband. Just as with Regina, Dale’s “love affair” is all in his head. He never discusses his feelings or his plans with Rae and is soon faced not only with her rejection, but with her husband’s violent vengeance. Dale tries to sell his organs for as much cash as possible, but once again, his plans backfire, and when the government gets wind of his regeneration abilities, Dale flees to California.
Dale is soon the star of his own reality show on which he donates limbs and organs to needy people. Even as he becomes famous, he realizes that he is still the same social misfit he always has been. Usually, a superhero heals instantly, with seemingly little pain or discomfort, but not Dale. Venturini forces us to watch as Dale suffers through excruciating pain as limbs and organs regenerate, emphasizing the fact that Dale isn’t your ordinary superhero.
When Rae unexpectedly shows up at his door, Dale falls back into his pattern of unrequited love. There are several twists at the end, and the finale leaves Dale with a new opportunity to regenerate his life—his inner life, if he can just pull get out of his head and in touch with reality—true reality, not TV reality.
This is a fascinating novel with an inventive take on the superhero persona. Dale is a fully realized character, as is Mack, and their close relationship is a highlight of the book. Unfortunately, the women in Dale’s life are stereotypical figures who serve primarily as catalysts for Dale’s worst decisions, and they suffer the most from the destructive aftermath of his attentions. Venturini’s plot construction is masterful, except for an out-of-nowhere scene involving a gun battle and a car crash. But even with these characterization problems and minor plot issues, Venturini’s fast-paced story kept me engrossed all the way to the very end. Dale Sampson is a fresh and welcome addition to superhero fiction.
Recommended for all libraries.
Contains: profanity and moderate physical violence
Reviewed by Patricia O. Mathews