With its menacing red dragon peering over Mark Barrowcliffe's byline, the D&D character-sheet background, the word "Elfish" in the title, and the "Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange" subtitle, it would be easy for a non-fantasy reader to stroll past this one in the bookstore, judge the book by its cover and dismiss it without a second look as nothing more than a cookie-cutter sword-and-sorcery novel.
"That book's about D&D," you might think, "and therefore has nothing to do with me."
But you'd be wrong. It has everything to do with you.
The Elfish Gene (Soho Press, $25) isn't about Dungeons & Dragons, per se, but rather it's a look at that handful of horrifying years we all experience as teenagers. The famous role-playing game just happens to be the cracker on which this particular hors d'oeuvre of teenage years is served. But it could have been any social group (marching band, chess club, sports, cheerleading, school newspaper, student body) and the social ineptness would taste the same.
The awkwardness, the searching for identity and role models, the quest for a clique in which to fit ... it happened to all of us, to a greater or lesser degree. (Don't shake your head. I'm positive it happened to you. Yes, even you.)
We're in England in the '70s, and a young boy named Mark Barrowcliffe, or Spaz, as he's aptly nicknamed, becomes an addict. For the lion's share of the book he's hopped up on his drug of choice: Dungeons & Dragons. (I'm using the term here as a catchall. During the course of the text he plays many games, some of which are cobbled together with ad-hoc house rules.) It's like watching Trainspotting, only instead of heroin, he's cooking up elves and orcs, dungeons and treasure, hit points and charisma on a spoon and then smacking his arm, looking for a fat, workable vein that hasn't yet collapsed. Instead of the likable-despite-his-addiction Ewan McGregor, we have ... Spaz.
Barrowcliffe's "friends" mostly consist of a few older kids who openly despise him, only Spaz is so blinded by his need to be accepted that he's willing to take a metric crap-ton of abuse because, hey, at least it's attention, right? (Addicts and those abused by others go to great lengths to rationalize their actions, and Barrowcliffe is no exception.) He's only invited to the gaming group because he's the one with most of the good gaming books. We all knew someone in our childhood who only got used for their toys. Kids do that, sometimes.
Barrowcliffe might have deserved (as much as any kid "deserves") to be picked on or berated. Some of his actions are quite obnoxious, a fact he cops to many, many times in the book. He mounts Shadowfax (his bike) and rides miles to people's homes, uninvited, hoping they'll game with him. (The lengths a junkie will go to to score a hit!) He's almost physically unable to discuss anything beyond the realm of fantasy, oftentimes non-sequituring into autistic rants like "Green dragons are found in forest and wooded areas. If the dragon can talk there is a ten percent chance it can use magic. First- and second-level spells only, naturally." (This is a response to a friend's mother, while on vacation, when she asks if he'd like to see a beekeeping center, a waterfall and then have a meal at the pub.)
He lingers at people's houses well beyond his welcome. He wears a cape and cultivates a fashion sense based on what his in-game character would wear. (In his defense, go back and look at your own high-school photos. Were your clothing decisions better informed?) Instead of saying "Hello," he hails gamers with fantasy-speak that, frankly, is uncomfortable to read, let alone experience firsthand. He's sarcastic and mocks everything, because he thinks it makes him cool. It's not until years later, after alienating scores of people, that he realizes it doesn't. He almost kills himself when, desiring to be more like a druid and commune with nature, he's a hair's breadth from eating a deadly mushroom instead of the kind that makes you trip and hallucinate. His desire to be a fireball-casting wizard, using balloons and butane, almost sets a friend's house ablaze.
Spaz spends years in a toxic social environment arguing the minutiae of arcane rules (which brings to mind the great "Summoner Geeks" video from years ago). And, just when it seems he can't sink any lower (Ewan McGregor's Trainspotting perigee was diving headfirst into a feces-stained toilet for a suppository; Barrowcliffe's is much worse: He joins a LARPing group), he's is saved by the love of a fine woman.
... or at least one who will snog him.
Good books tell their story well and in a compelling manner. And then there are those few that go above and beyond and can make a reader become self-aware. In the final pages, flashed-forwarded to the present day, a grown Barrowcliffe, as a matter of courtesy before publishing, shows what he's written to a friend—more importantly, what he's written about said friend, whom he hasn't seen for 25 years—much of which is unflattering.
"How could I object to it?" [Billy] said. "It's true."
I found this a strange viewpoint. The truth about themselves is the one thing the majority of people find the most objectionable. It's certainly a central reason some boys spend every waking hour playing D&D.
The truth hurts, sure enough. In reading The Elfish Gene, I found myself recalling the horrors of my own youth, cringing sometimes, smiling at others. Barrowcliffe's memoir has truth and honesty. His willingness to experience those pains openly so that we might view his teenage years (and, through them, to see more clearly our own), make this book a worthy read.