Books

Black Cat
Black Cat
Black Cat

Misconception

by Ryan Boudinot

“What starts out as a fairly standard story of teenagers taking themselves too seriously ends up being a funny and finely hewn examination of some serious concerns. There are the writerly ones, sure—the question of who owns the story, what can be trusted in any individual’s account. But Boudinot’s after something more universal: like how good intentions can lead to terrible endings.” —Time Out Chicago

  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Page Count 240
  • Publication Date September 08, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-7065-1
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 7.25"
  • US List Price $14.00
  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Publication Date September 02, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9890-7
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

Ryan Boudinot’s story collection The Littlest Hitler was an Amazon.com and Publishers Weekly “Book of the Year” choice, and established him as one of the most promising talents of a new generation of American writers. With Misconception, Boudinot has delivered a startlingly original debut novel—on one hand a smart and provocative coming-of-age story, on the other a fresh and witty comment on the unreliability of memory and storytelling—that is sure to command attention.

Cedar Rivers is on a strange errand. A doctor sidelined into the strange world of the first dot-com boom, he has come to Albany, New York, in between business in Iceland and home in Silicon Valley, to meet a woman he hasn’t seen in twenty years. Then a Chuck Taylor-shod proto-Goth with chipped black nail polish, Kat is now a literary up-and-comer who has summoned him to Albany to vet her memoir—an account of the summer they were sweethearts. As if that weren’t enough, she’s written parts of it from his point of view. Through an intense weekend in a snowed-in motel room, Cedar and Kat relive their most painful memories: Before they had a chance at first love, Kat’s mother and her new fiancé dragged Kat off on a family sailing trip. Kat returned with a secret, one which—when she shared it with Cedar—set off a series of drastically miscalculated assumptions that dominoed into a moment of startling tragedy.

A tender, absurd, and heartbreaking novel about the unintended consequences of first love and bad judgment, Misconception slyly questions the way we narrate our memories and assign culpability. With a sharp eye for human foibles and a trenchant cleverness that dances off the page, Ryan Boudinot announces himself as a young writer who is here to stay.

Tags Literary

Praise

“Turning the last page of Misconception, you’ll be certain that you love Seattle author Ryan Boudinot’s style. It sends readers bouncing into long swoops and back again, the volcano-boarding of this year’s literary fiction. In other words, the fun kind of crazy, and vice versa. But the way Boudinot chooses to snap together words into description and dialogue is where he excels. . . . Boudinot’s writing skill . . . relentlessly follows a reader. . . . Most of Boudinot’s descriptions act in reverse: the reader says not, ‘that’s common and therefore dull,’ but ‘that’s common, but I didn’t know it even existed.’ The old is both familiar and new, and that is one of this book’s—and any good book’s—most satisfying gifts.” —Kristin Thiel, The Oregonian

“Boffo comedy and compassionate attention to everyday familial and sexual boondoggles are almost perfectly blended in this zesty first novel from button-pushing Boudinot . . . Boudinot displays crack comic timing, gets off some wonderfully indecent one-liners and constructs one credibly replete face-off scene after another; even a throwaway conversation between the chastened Cedar and a worldly-wise psychiatric counselor bristles with ironic wit. The central plot issue, hinted at by the perfect title, is handled with consummate energy and tact. . . . for most of the way this kick-ass yarn threatens to become the most inviting comedy of wasted youth since Tom Perrotta’s The Wishbones. . . . keep your eye on Boudinot: He’s on his way up.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A recipe for unreliable narration . . . the point of view, moving backward and forward in time, keeps shifting from Cedar to Kat—or does it? And is it a memoir or a million little pieces of fiction? . . . [an] episodic exercise in fractured form.” —Michael Cart, Booklist

“This postmodern puzzle about memory and nostalgia, about truth and storytelling, doesn’t employ cleverness as a crutch, one that deconstructs to distraction. Its story is adolescence writ large, in all its great tenderness, comedy, ridiculousness, and pain. . . . Boudinot nails all the little details of his mid-’80s setting, but he’s confident enough not to ride hard on that decade’s references. . . . There’s plenty of Barthelme, Bender, and Moody in Boudinot, but one reason I really like Misconception is that there’s a little bit of Butt-head, too.” —Dave Daley, Bookforum

“[Boudinot] piqued our interest with The Littlest Hitler . . . [Misconception is] slightly edgy and likely a celebrated literary debut.” —Library Journal

“What starts out as a fairly standard story of teenagers taking themselves too seriously ends up being a funny and finely hewn examination of some serious concerns. There are the writerly ones, sure—the question of who owns the story, what can be trusted in any individual’s account. But Boudinot’s after something more universal: like how good intentions can lead to terrible endings.” —Time Out Chicago

Misconception takes on the question of truth in storytelling, as well as matters of the heart, and the mysteries of coming into one’s own, all with a sensitivity and intelligence that is truly moving, and a sense of humor that, page after page, will warm your cockles. A gem of a first novel.” —Charles Bock, author of Beautiful Children

“A comic symphony—a story with side-splitting action, treacherous wit, and vice grip lyricism. This writer’s wacky wisdom erupts line by line with buzzing tenderness; here, bleak is beautiful, and lucid, lovable characters jump into your arms. Misconception gives fresh voice to our most important American secrets.” —Maria Flook, author of Invisible Eden and Lux

Misconception is terribly good. The humor is deft and intelligent and made me laugh quite loudly many times over, and the play on memory and truth and authorial intent is some of the best I’ve seen. And in all of this is a beautifully human story of modern love (okay, I admit it, I did cry quite a few times), told in such undeniably original voice and form, that I was left baffled at how utterly true and innovative the book is. Misconception will stay with you long after the last sentence, and you will be thankful for that. Ryan Boudinot has presented us with a gift, a book to keep close to your heart.” —Brad Land, author of Goat and Pilgrims Upon the Earth

“Funny, sexy, painful, and true, Misconception is a misnomer: Boudinot’s novel is a self-devouring he-said-she-said anti-memoir so perfectly conceived that even though I’m pretty sure I’m writing these words, I wouldn’t put money on it.” —Ed Park, author of Personal Days

“Ryan Boudinot will make you love characters even when they are being despicable and foolish, and he writes about relationships in a way that is perceptive, honest, and refreshing. But there is something more going on. Misconception is a book riven with insight, humor, and style. And it is among the finest debuts I have ever read.” —Stephen Elliott, author of Happy Baby

“Ryan Boudinot’s Misconception is a daring, absolutely heartfelt book, both brutally funny and perfectly poignant in its depictions of family life—all the way from procreation to death. A brave, formally inventive first novel.” —Joe Meno, author of Hairstyles of the Damned and The Great Perhaps

“Ryan Boudinot’s tragic narrators, Cedar and Kat, deliver a rollicking tour of adolescence that pivots on a gasp. Misconception is as twisted as watching your own sperm swim under the microscope in biology class and as irresistible as a twenty-year secret about sex, death, and paternity.” —Aimee Liu, author of Flash House

Praise for The Littlest Hitler:

“A must-read . . . Imagine the dry but daft humor of John Hodgman’s lithe essays crosscut with Stephen Leacock . . . Add a dash of Chuck Klosterman’s incisiveness . . . That’s where Boudinot’s weird science is heading. Only he’s better.” —Philadelphia City Paper

Excerpt

The Pacific Northwest.

I was suspended in eighth grade for bringing my semen to science class. We were supposed to inspect living things under the microscope. Mrs. Wheeler had used the example of pond water. My friend Paul Dills’s sample was a minnow that had eaten itself to death. Other kids brought leaves, feathers, dirt, hair. The morning of the assignment I whacked off into a Tupperware Popsicle mold. On the way to school, I revealed the contents of my plain brown paper sack to Paul as we hacked on his aunt’s menthol cigarettes under the bridge. First, Paul expressed amazement that I had experienced an orgasm. Second, that I’d thought to bring attention to this fact in science class. Third, that I expected to ace the assignment with it.

There were three students at each work station. My partners were Paul and Rachel Hilden, one of the kids who’d brought a jar of murky pond water. Rachel had accumulated a tragic assortment of nicknames, among the most recent, Toilet Paper Stuck to Shoe Bitch.

Her mouth, reengineered with scaffolding and rubber bands, had allegedly been the subject of a research paper in an orthodontia journal. Though she would grow up to become vengefully gorgeous and anchor an Idaho news show, in eighth grade she was prone to postlunch fishing trips in the Dumpsters to recover missing retainers. I doubted Rachel knew that semen existed.

We inspected Rachel’s pond water first, taking turns peering at the boring blobs. Then we looked at Paul’s minnow bacteria and saw a few crawly things. I used a Q-tip to dab a slide with my substance.

“What did you bring, Cedar?” Rachel said.

By the way, I was named after a tree.

“I brought baby tadpoles,” I said.

“That’s not tadpoles. That’s spit.”

I loaded the slide and turned the dial to 200x magnification. I’d often examined the photos of sperm cells in my dog-eared masturbation material, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and watched footage of wriggling sperm on PBS, but these sperm were special: they had originated in my testes, each one trafficking my genetic material in its top-heavy little head. They had been designed to withstand the arduous trip into a uterus, but few had survived my two-mile bike ride to school. Even dead they were fascinating to look at, each a tiny exclamation point carrying my half of what could have been a human being.

“Let me see!” Paul said. When I moved away he squinted into the instrument and his jaw slowly sagged. “They have tails and everything! Holy crap!”

Paul’s excitement quickly attracted the attention of nearby work stations. He was bad at keeping secrets, and was probably the last guy in class I should have told about my semen sample. Everyone wanted to take a look. Kat Daniels stepped up and brushed a few strands of hair from her face as she bent to peer into the battered middle school microscope. By our rudimentary, junior high standards, Kat wasn’t counted among the prettiest girls at our school. She had a slightly upturned nose that would have looked awkward if it weren’t for the sleepy eyes hanging over it. She wore chipped, sparkly fingernail polish. Her beauty was slowly unfolding, refracted through my growing capability to notice her. As she squinted into the microscope, there passed an interminably nervous moment occupied by her, me, and millions of reproductive cells. She was quiet a moment. I watched her understand. Then she looked up and said, “Cool.”

After that I didn’t care how grody I was in the eyes of my classmates. Kat slithered back to her station to study a daisy. In an instant, everyone was crouching over my sample, the guys exclaiming and the girls making retching noises. Mrs. Wheeler peeled her face from an Agatha Christie novel and slammed down her coffee cup. Everyone scattered. Our teacher peered into the microscope long enough to determine the nature of my sample, then pointed in the direction of the door. “Mr. Warner’s office. Now.”

As I walked stiffly from the room, Rachel Hilden pressed her eye against the microscope. “Whoa,” she said. “These tadpoles really are miniature.”

Mr. Warner, tapping a ruler against his knee, sat on the corner of his wood-grain, Formica-topped desk in a way that must have stimulated his anus. Individual fibers of polyester in his tan Sansabelt pants audibly creaked when he shifted from one buttock to the other.

“Human sexuality is what we’re talking about here,” he said. “Poets? Yeah sure they wrote about it, scientists have performed serious research into it, heck, some of the world’s greatest paintings depict figures of the nudes and what have you.” He leaned closer and leveled his ruler at me. “But based on the undistinguished year you’ve had at this institution of learning I can only conclude that these kinds of fancy thoughts were not what you had in mind when you pulled your grotesque little stunt.”

Mrs. Wheeler sat in the other visitor’s chair, the paper bag with the offending specimen on the desk before her. A dark brown patch grew larger as my semen leaked through a corner of the bag.

I hoped Mr. Warner wouldn’t make me call my mom. He leaned closer. “Everyone’s sexual maturity has to start somewhere, Cedar. Do you really want yours to start like this? The mistakes you make now, when it comes to sex, will shape the rest of your experiences. Do you want to become a pervert? A homosexual? Cedar, are your parents exposing you to pornography?” he said quietly.

“Right,” I said. “I wish.”

The principal sighed, displaying a theatrical sort of disappointment. “It looks like in light of some of your recent unexcused absences, your role as ring leader in February’s biscuits-and-gravy lunch-room walkout, and this sperm business, you’ve left me no other choice but to issue a week’s suspension.” As if to add a little ceremony to his decision, Mr. Warner picked up the bag and dropped it into his waste can. A string of semen dangling from the bag fell across his left knee.

My father was Wade Rivers, a name as dumb as mine. That afternoon he arrived home early, took two steps into the kitchen, and threw his briefcase against the refrigerator. The magnetic letters spelling profanities limited by five lousy vowels skittered to the floor in clumps. A picture of me taken with my mom’s fish-eye lens floated to the linoleum as the freezer door swung open, releasing a carton of Neapolitan, a tray of ice cubes, and an inadequately-sealed bag of frozen peas. My dad’s briefcase popped open and scattered his hectic legal scribblings. He swore. He kicked cabinetry. Apparently he’d lost another case. Helping him pick up the mess seemed the most sensible course of action. I had seen my father this angry before, many times, and knew that the best thing to do was to eradicate the stunned silence by being productive. I began gathering his papers and re-adhering magnets to the fridge. My dad sighed, bent down, said, “Shit, no, no, I’ll get that,” then saw that the cardboard flap of the ice-cream carton had been left open.

“Have I or have I not explained the concept of freezer burn to you?” my dad said.

“I’ll eat it.”

“Not helpful, Cedar. Now nobody else can enjoy it, and you’ll only eat it to make a point.”

“I’m sorry you lost your case.” This is what I thought I was supposed to say, so I said it. My dad shrugged. “Also, I got suspended.”

“What for?”

“We had an experiment where we had to bring something from nature to look at under a microscope.”

“And you brought—”

“Sperm?”

My father sat down at the kitchen table and considered the pig-shaped salt and pepper shakers. Finally he said, “Please at least tell me it was your own sperm.”

“It was,” I said. Then my mom came home.

My mother, her name was Janet, was a medical photographer who documented abrasions, growths, and autopsy oddities for the university hospital. In my house, Frank Netter’s classic text Atlas of Human Anatomy was coffee-table material. We had a model skull named Barbara on our mantle. My mother and I had a standing arrangement that whenever I had an abrasion or ingrown toenail I’d be sure to show her. Most families kept photo albums of birthday snapshots. Ours contained a few vacation shots and photographic proof of bicycle accidents, blisters, pustulant sties.

My parents met when my dad was starting out as a public defender and my mom worked for the county coroner. Their courtship revolved around a spectacular triple homicide that rocked our county in the early seventies. My mom recorded the crime scene and subsequent autopsies. My dad admitted years later that her grisly pictures were what had swayed the jury. She often told me that if the murderer had gotten off, she would have never forgiven my father. I was lucky: the guy was sentenced to death; I was conceived.

My mother, striding through the front door with her swaying camera bag, praising a particularly photogenic teratoma: “From the outside it looked like any other tumor, but in dissection we found hair and teeth and I think even a fingernail or two.”

“Go ahead, tell her,” my dad said, confronting the refrigerator for a beer.

“I got suspended for looking at sperm under a microscope.”

“Clarification. His own sperm.”

“Cedar,” my mom said, then turned to my dad, “Did you remember to make ice cubes?”

“Yeah, you want an iced tea?”

“I’ll make it,” my mom said. “I mean really, Cedar. Sperm?”

“I wanted to know what they looked like.”

My mother opened the freezer and twisted the ice cube tray until it yielded its cubes. “Who left the ice cream open?”

“You were expressing curiosity in human physiology,” my dad said, leading the witness.

“Human physiology, huh?” my mom said. “If that was the case, why didn’t you just use the microscope we bought you last Christmas?”

“It was me who left the ice cream open,” I said.

“Don’t try to change the subject,” my mom said. “We’re talking about sperm, not ice cream. Jesus, did we miss the deadline for the masturbation conversation, is that what this is about?”

“I’ve told him a hundred times about freezer burn!” my dad shouted.

“My microscope doesn’t have good enough magnification,” I said.

My mom said, “Cedar, we’re not mad at you for wanting to understand the workings of your own body. But what were you thinking? It was Mrs. Wheeler’s class, right? Christ, she drives a VW Rabbit with a Mamas and the Papas bumper sticker. She teaches a bread-making class at the community college! How did you expect her to react? My point is that if you want to look at your own sperm under a microscope, I can introduce you to some lab techs at the fertility clinic who’ll leave you alone in a closet with a Juggs magazine and water-based lubricant and you can look at your own sperm under a microscope until the cows come home.”

“Really?” my dad said, “They only had Playboy when I was there.”

In truth, I had observed my sperm under my own microscope many times. I had witnessed their mass extinction suspended above the heat of the bulb, hunted for the oddball spermatozoa with two heads or tails, gazed myopically into the mystery of my chromosomal output. The secret reason for my act of scientific inquiry unraveled before me like the paper vortex of a Chinese yo-yo. I had taken the sperm to class to perform an experiment, certainly, but not the one that had been assigned. My experiment had proceeded from the hypothesis that if I were bold enough to offer forth my sperm as proof of my virility, I would win Kat’s heart. After all, she was the girl who had approached me at my locker after my oral report on the state of Rhode Island and breathed two fantastic, incandescent words into my ear, “I’m ovulating.”

My parents drafted a list of chores for me to complete during my one-week suspension, but I still had time to read, shoot hoops, and masturbate in every room of the house while they were at work. Every day around three o’clock Paul would stop by on his way home and brief me on the shifting alliances and petty grudges of our classmates while we shared his cigarettes behind the garage. On the last day of my suspension Paul crashed his bike into our hedge and declared, “Kat has the slide. She took it from the science lab and keeps it in her jewelry box!”

I demanded that he reveal his sources. Kat’s friend Margot had told him, making him promise not to tell me, knowing that he would.

I said, “I’m going to need one of your cigarettes.”

“You’re in luck. I’ve got menthols.”

We went around back behind the garage and conducted our adolescent tobacco ceremony.

“You think this means she wants me to call her?” I wondered.

“Call her? Cedar! Come to your senses. She wants you to bang her!”

That night I tried willing my mind into clairvoyance, desperate to know what Kat was doing that very moment, twenty blocks away. She was tucking my sperm into a little velvet-lined jewelry box among her rings and friendship pins. She was sneaking peeks at the slide as she did her homework, holding it up to the light of her bedside lamp. I conducted conversations with her in my head while I scraped moss off the deck, alphabetized the LPs, pulled rocks and weeds from the garden. I created a twenty-item list of conversation starters in case she called, but she remained as silent as me.

After a long and boring weekend I returned to school. Before I made it to my locker I learned that I’d been tagged with a number of nicknames that Paul hadn’t had the heart to reveal. Post-it notes had been inserted into my locker through those slots the manufacturer must have included to avoid the liabilities of suffocated nerds. Wanker, Jizzmaster, Spermy. I wadded the notes into a ball and stuffed it deep behind a month-old lunch bag.

The final week of junior high school washes the blood from the most culpable of children’s hands. My science class transgression was relegated to lore by other scandals—the Kevin Johnson pot bust, a girls’ locker room raid, petty theft from Mrs. Wheeler’s purse. Just over the hump of the academic calendar were neighborhood lawns to mow, each a counter-clockwise mandala generating the most beautiful aroma of summer. Emboldened by the freedom of the year’s end, I called Kat the night after the last day of school, prepared with my list of topics and subtopics should our dialogue come to any awkward pauses. I didn’t refer to the list once. We were like this diagram of bacteria entering a nostril I’d seen in one of my mom’s medical books, nodes glomming onto receptors, spreading something virulent. I plundered Kat’s opinions about our classmates, our teachers, the media products that had located us through TV, radio, and the multiplex. But I hesitated broaching the subject of the sperm that had brought us together. Now that we had entered the codified process of courtship—fake insults, overwrought pronouncements, long stretches of breathy silence between phone receivers deep into the night—now that we were falling for each other, it felt like a transgression to mention testosterone, ovulation, or spermatozoa sandwiched between layers of glass.

I slowly shoved breakfast at my face as my parents orbited the kitchen table, inserting themselves into my periphery with gentle threats of punishment for undone tasks and admonitions about how I chose to spend my lawn-mowing money. How pathetic their domestic regulations, how trivial were their to-do lists, when one could sup from the pond of the infinite in the sound of a sigh transmitted over a phone line. My dad apparently won an important case and I observed myself talking to him about it, prompting the man with questions at periodic silences. My mother showed me some photos she had taken of a diseased pancreas and I reacted as I suspected she wanted me to, with feigned sick fascination.

I mowed Mr. Dickman’s yard, chopping up bits of cedar shingles ripped from his roof during a remodel, splattering piles of Saint Bernard shit. Mr. Dickman, shirtless, drinking a wine cooler, watched me from the window of his living room, which he had converted into his bedroom, as was the prerogative of a bachelor. I think he was some kind of public accountant but I’d never thought to ask. He occasionally entertained his busty Italian girlfriend, nuzzling her on the weather-beaten lawn furniture of his patio, slurping cocktails inappropriate to consume when enjoying a view consisting of the back of a bowling alley. When my lawn-care duties brought me in contact with the couple, they were usually feeding on Ritz crackers turded yellow with EZ Cheez and planting hickeys on each other’s leathery necks. I went out of my way to chop up a lot of slugs with the weed whacker, spraying their guts on Mr. Dickman’s deteriorating siding. When Mr. Dickman wasn’t distracting me by using his rowing machine in the driveway, the drone of the mower lulled me into a meditative state in which I enumerated the obstacles between my and Kat’s naked bodies.

When Kat and I finally managed to see each other at the mall a week after school got out, we held hands and walked a sober lap past the food court and jewelry stores like players in an ultraserious form of Japanese theater. Later, we made out in the back row during a matinee, after which our parents picked us up in their respective vehicles. We both had strict curfews and expectations about our physical locations, both answering to the strategies of animals regulating the fertility of their young.

Kat’s parents were divorced. Her mother worked for a company that made yarn for craft stores, and her father repaired septic systems on the other side of the state. Kat also complained about her mother’s boyfriend of two or three years, an older man who sounded like he had a lot of money.

Kat’s mother forbade her from meeting me in any place that was not public. One night I arranged to stay at Paul’s while she arranged to stay a block away at Margot’s house. Paul had a detached garage with an upstairs where his pack-rat family stored beaten-up furniture they meant to eventually reupholster and resell, including a couch large enough for two people to stretch out on if one was on top of the other.

At one o’clock in the morning Kat emerged from a rhodedendron hedge, and in the bluish indirect light of a street lamp I helped pick sticky flower petals from her hair. I didn’t know if I was supposed to kiss her at this point, so I offered her a piece of Big Red.

“Not that I think your breath is gross or anything,” I said.

Paul motioned for us to be quiet, then showed us up the exterior steps of the garage to the loft, the kind of place we envisioned Fonzie living in. He left us alone.

I remember Kat putting me in her mouth. I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be feeling. There were a lot of teeth involved and then nothing happened. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings so I made some pleasure-related noises. And then in the half-dark she let me look upon the origin of the universe between her legs. Years later I would occasionally think of this moment when fucking my girlfriends.

Kat had preserved my sperm in a secret compartment beneath her bracelets and necklaces, but it wasn’t released that night, or any of the subsequent moments we managed to steal from our unsuspecting parents. Maybe my body didn’t yet understand what an orgasm with another person was supposed to mean. For whatever reason, I couldn’t come. On the couch that night we were just tongues, patches of warmed denim, a cold nipple pressed into the intersection of the life line and love line of a boy’s hand. We arrived at a pause. My balls ached.

“Is it okay I didn’t, you know, come?” I said.

“I think so.”

“Did you come?”

“It started feeling lots better but then, I don’t know.”

I pulled my sweatshirt down over her shoulders. She seemed disappointed.

“I can try again.” I said.

“It’s not that. It’s not you. I just can’t stop thinking about my mom and George. They want me to go with them on this idiotic boat trip to Alaska.”

“How long will you be gone?”

“The whole month of July.”

“Oh.”

“I don’t think I’ll make it,” she said. “Just think of me in that stupid boat with George the perv and me puking over the side. Maybe I can get a doctor’s note that I’ll get too seasick. Maybe I can stay at Margot’s and be with you every night.”

“I want to sleep next to you,” I said. “I want to wake up with you.”

“Promise me,” she said.

In the weeks before the trip, Kat used some babysitting money to buy a microscope of her own. While other couples our age traded notes and broken-heart lockets, we furtively exchanged slides, my sperm for her vaginal mucosa. In the parking lot behind theater nine two weeks before she set sail, she presented me with a little box wrapped in an exchange student’s origami paper.

“Swear you won’t open it until you get home,” Kat said. A stream of blinking people exited a matinee. “That’s my mom’s car. I gotta go.”

I waited until she was out of sight before I peeled open the package. In the box I found a slide imprinted with a single droplet of blood. It burned a dark mystery in my pocket as I hurried home. That night, in my room, I peered into my microscope, hoping to discover the one thing on the mind of every one of my sperm: Kat’s egg.

One night after playing Nintendo at Paul’s I came home to find my parents sitting quietly at the kitchen table. Before I could make it to the fridge, my mom said, “I was looking for my scissors in your room and found these instead.”

My dad pulled from his pocket a half-consumed pack of Camel Lights and set them on the table.

“Are you smoking?” my mother said.

“They’re Paul’s. He told me to hang on to them for him.”

“So what did I smell in your room the other night?”

“I already told you. I lit a stick of deodorant on fire.”

“Fair enough,” my father said. “Let’s see what burning deodorant smells like.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out my stick of Brut. “Was this the kind of deodorant you did your experiment on?”

“Yeah.”

My dad unscrewed the deodorant cap then struck a kitchen match and held it to the green dome in which a single armpit hair was embedded. The surface ignited easily, sending up a blue flame. The hair flared and turned to soot. My dad sniffed the air and turned to my mom. “Is this what you smelled the other night in Cedar’s room?”

“No.”

“According to Cedar, your sense of smell must have deceived you. Is that what you’re telling us, Cedar?”

“I dunno,” I said, picking at the rubber sole of one of my Chuck Taylor’s with a ballpoint.

“On to exhibit B.” From the laundry room my father fetched one of my sweatshirts, which he held to my mother’s nose. “What does this smell like to you?”

“Cigarette smoke,” my mom said flatly. “Jesus! Paul and I went to Denny’s and sat in the smoking section. Big deal.”

“Cedar. Quit bullshitting us,” my mom said. “We know you started smoking. And it’s going to stop tonight. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“You know what smoking does to your body. But in case you forgot, let me show you.”

My mother emptied a manila folder, spreading pictures of blackened lungs across the table. “These are real people’s bodies, Cedar. This is what the inside of a smoker’s body looks like. This is supposed to be pink.”

As they delivered their lecture, I focused my attention on the glossies. I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of thinking I’d been swayed. I’d heard this kind of patronizing shit before, at a school assembly, delivered by hospital volunteers who dressed as lungs and sang a song about emphysema. My parents didn’t need to show me pictures to convince me that the inside of a human body was a sacred, incredible place. I had seen blood cells, I had watched sperm die. I had touched the mollusk protuberance of a cervix.

Then I saw the picture of a girl, her body cavity opened from neck to navel, her organs scooped out, an empty canyon between her young breasts. Her slack-jawed head lolled to one side.

“She was your age,” my mom said. The floor underneath me appeared to tilt a little. I held onto the table and for a moment lost my sense of vision. A little vomit climbed up my throat then burned its way back down. When I opened my eyes again my mom was dabbing my forehead with a cold dish cloth. “I forget how upsetting those sorts of pictures can be,” she said.

“Let me see it again,” I said. She showed me. Looking at it made me wonder the same sorts of things I wondered when viewing pornography, like where did this person live, what were they doing hours before this revealing photograph was taken, what did their house look like, did their families know. I filled my lungs with air and let it out slowly. “What happened to her?”

“She killed herself drinking industrial solvent.”

“Fuck,” I said. “Why do you show me these things?”

“So you won’t forget you’re mortal.”

In Kat’s neighborhood the elms had lived long enough to entwine their branches above the street like praying hands. I parked my bike against a tree and considered not ringing the doorbell of their split-level. I could still blow off their invitation to dinner. Kat answered the door, quickly kissed me, and led me by the hand up the stairs into the kitchen where her mother was preparing the meal. Veronica looked older than my mom, which startled me. She wore lots of beads, a head wrap, a loose yellow sweater that hung from her body in a manner that suggested she advocated women’s lib.

“Welcome to our madness,” Veronica said, stirring pasta in a metal bowl, then laughed when I didn’t respond. “Oh, grab a soda. There’s Sprite and Tab. I hope you like pasta ’cause that’s what we’re having. I grew the tomatoes for the sauce myself.”

“Her sauce is awesome,” Kat said.

“You have a nice house,” I said.

“This dump? Please. We’ve got dry rot, wet rot, the pipes freeze every winter and this summer it looks like we have ourselves a ladybug infestation.”

Kat exhaled and slumped against the refrigerator. “Gol, Mom, he’s only trying to give you a compliment.”

“Come to think of it, it is kind of a dump,” I said.

We laughed. Veronica’s boyfriend George clomped stiffly up the stairs. He was an angular format of a human being with tiny eyes in the kind of bald head that seems to automatically come with a mustache. He wore a necktie tucked under a cardigan sweater vest. I couldn’t tell whether this was his standard at-home attire or if he had just returned from somewhere more formal. Kat had told me George worked with computers at a bank. He shook my hand and some featureless words got lost between us among clanging dishes. Veronica set the table with the pasta, bread, salad, and a bowl of steamed broccoli and we took our seats under a dimmed fixture.

“Let us say grace,” George said, grasping my hand, squeezing my fingers against a gigantic class ring. He bowed his head, closed his eyes, then arched his eyebrows upward. “Oh Heavenly Father we ask that you bless this food with the blood of thy son Christ Jesus. We offer our everlasting praise as you nourish and nurture us in body, mind, and soul. And Heavenly Father we welcome our guest with the fruit of thy bounty the Lord our Savior. May you guide these young people in their budding relationship and bar them from temptation. For as their lust is strong so shall you give them the strength to not go past first base. Ah-men.”

“Amen.”

“So,” Veronica said, passing the broccoli to me, “I understand you’re the reason Kat has become so interested in science.”

I said my own little silent prayer that they hadn’t seen my slides in her jewelry box. “It’s my best subject,” I explained. “I like thinking about how living things work.”

“Like biology?” George said.

“Sure. I’m most interested in what happens at the cellular level.”

“So you believe in evolution,” George said.

I looked at Kat to see how I should respond. She speared her broccoli.

“Sure.”

“Hmm. Well I do, too, to an extent. But how come the seas don’t have more salt if they’re so old? No one’s been able to answer that one.”

“So I guess you’re going on a big trip,” I said.

“That’s correct,” said George, “Can’t wait to get out on the water with the orcas and the sunshine and the foam splashing across the bowsprit. I guess you could say I’ve always been a seaman at heart.”

“A what at heart?” Kat said.

Veronica interrupted, “Cedar, do you like music by the band Black Sabbath?”

George wiped his face and leaned back in his chair. “Oh, honey, you’re not going to pollute this young man’s mind with that trash.”

“It’s not trash, it’s part of my life. Maybe I’ve grown up and moved on to Ashford and Simpson and Peter Cetera but at one time I was what they called a go-go dancer and dang proud of it.”

“You danced for Black Sabbath?” I said.

“Ozzy Osbourne autographed her butt,” Kat said.

“That’s enough,” George said.

“What music did you listen to when you were . . .” I asked George.

“When I was what, young? You calling me a dinosaur? Hey, I personally own Sports by Huey Lewis and the News. And you might be surprised to know that on weekends I wear Jordache jeans. But since you asked, there were a whole slew of groups I enjoyed back when I was a greaser. The Platters, Four Tops, Paul Revere and the Raiders, you name it. I grooved down to it all.”

“‘Ozzy’ on one cheek, ‘Osbourne’ on the other,” Kat whispered.

Veronica frowned. “What does your family usually talk about at the dinner table, Cedar?”

“Homicides.”

“Cedar’s parents—” Kat started.

“I know what Cedar’s parents do,” George said. “I understand your old man is a public defender. Must be difficult. How come he didn’t go into prosecution? All those sleazeballs he has to represent.”

“He wanted to make sure everyone got fair representation in our system. Not just people who can afford it. And he wanted to defend the innocent.”

“Can someone please pass the margarine?” Kat said.

“What about the ones he knows aren’t innocent? What do you do when you’ve got a guy you know deserves to get locked up but you help put him back out on the street? Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see how a guy could live with himself defending some of those creeps.”

Veronica leveled a knife at her boyfriend. “If you have any other questions about Cedar’s father, you might consider asking him instead.”

George shrugged. “It’s a philosophical question.”

“So what route are you taking on your trip?” I said.

“We’ll be going up around Vancouver Island, to Ketchikan, Skagway, a bunch of other Indian names I can’t remember. We’ll make a stop in Port Hardy, which, I just found this out today, was founded by a survivor of the Titanic.”

“You think it’s a good idea to talk about the Titanic before you go on a boat trip?” Kat said.

I twirled linguine around my fork and kept misjudging how much I could eat in one bite. The whorl of pasta kept growing larger than bite-size, and I kept having to unroll it and start over again.

“What subjects are you taking in school next year, Cedar?” Veronica asked me.

“I think the basics. Geometry. State history,” I said.

“Going out for any sports?” George said.

“Maybe golf or tennis.”

“Of course. Doctor and lawyer sports. So you can play with your father.”

“My dad doesn’t play either. He swims.”

“What about your mother? What does she do?” George said.

“She jogs.”

“I mean for a job.”

“She’s a medical photographer.”

“Now that’s something I just couldn’t do,” Veronica said. “I can’t even stand it when I see a run-over cat in the street.”

“She says the trick is to not think of them as people anymore. They’re just bodies. They’re just systems and organs,” I said.

Kat scrunched up her face.

“Yes, but what of the soul?” George said.

“I don’t believe in a soul.”

“And God? You don’t believe in Him, either?”

“I guess, no, not really.”

George shrugged. “That’s odd, I could have sworn I heard you say amen a short bit ago.”

Veronica pointed her knife again. “George, I’m serious. Stop with the inquisition. You’re making our guest uncomfortable.”

“Inquisition?” George said. “Cedar, am I making you uncomfortable?”

“No,” I said.

“See?”

“What else is he going to say? God!” Kat said.

“I don’t believe in God at all,” I said.

George said, “And yet you believe in justice.”

Veronica tried to interrupt, asking, “Who wants more bread?”

George continued, “Let’s get down to brass tacks. You come over to dinner, pray with us without believing a word of it, then claim to believe in giving everyone a fair shake, yet have nothing to base it on, no eternal consequences for our earthly deeds. No God, no reason for being, just people trying to be just in a godless void. Not the kind of world I want to live in.”

“What’s wrong with being just?” I said.

“Nothing at all, friend,” George said, “but justice without the power and grace of God backing it up is arbitrary. Makes no difference if you’re just or not if you don’t have to answer to your deeds in the next life, if you believe in a next life at all. I feel sorry for you if that’s the kind of world you think you live in.”

“Who’s up for watching my videotape?” Veronica said.

Kat stared at her food. A sharp glance passed from Veronica to George. I tried to fill the silence by digging the hole deeper. “I believe in things that can be proved. Or tested, like with the scientific method.”

George laughed a loud “Ha!” and dabbed his chin with a napkin. “You have much to learn, son.”

“I’d like it if you didn’t call me son.”

“Say again?”

“Don’t insult my father, then call me son.”

George slowly set down his knife and said, “I don’t appreciate you coming to my house expecting to date my—Veronica’s—daughter and telling me what I can or can’t say, son.”

Kat slapped her palm on the table. “Shut up, George. This is so not your house and you have no place making my boyfriend uncomfortable.”

George threw his hands up and laughed. “What is this? Can’t a guy have a conversation? Maybe at the Rivers household they talk about open-heart surgery and how to spring dope dealers out of jail, but here I’ll talk about whatever I damn well please.”

“George, you’re being an asshole,” Veronica said. After that the man did some grumbling and we consumed the rest of the meal amid the excruciating noises of silverware striking porcelain. When George left to work on his boat Veronica put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Cedar, I am so sorry. I don’t know what his problem was tonight, he’s usually not like this. Will you stick around for pie?”

We went into the living room with our apple pie á la mode. Veronica inserted a Betamax tape into the player.

“Kat thinks it’s soooo embarrassing when I show this but I bet you’ll get a kick out of it. This was when I lived in California.”

What appeared on the TV was an early Black Sabbath music video, with lots of zooming camera action and swirly psychedelic colors. Over Ozzy Osbourne’s right shoulder stood a platform on which a younger version of Veronica danced in a mini skirt and white go-go boots. As we watched the grainy tape, Kat occasionally buried her face in a throw pillow in mortification. During the slow-tempo bridge, the camera zoomed in on Veronica’s young face. Years later, in a suburban living room, as Ozzy sang of children of the grave. She shook her head in wonderment.

Reading Group Guide

by Susan Avery

1. Many authors have explored the role of memory in storytelling. Lewis Carroll wrote in Through the Looking Glass “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” With that in mind think about memory in Ryan Boudinot’s novel. How does it work?

2. In how many ways does the title, Misconception, relate to the story? Can you find various meanings? What is your understanding of misconception? What do you think of the subtitle? Did it affect your perception as you read? Did it make itself clear in the end?

3. Most novels are written in first person or third person. Boudinot has woven two first person narratives into an inventive work. Who wrote the first chapter? Why? What are the differences in Kat’s and Cedar’s narratives? Is it more than just different voices? What is the nature of truth in memory? 

4. Almost everything we know about Janet and Wade Rivers is written by Kat. How do you think that Cedar would describe them? Did it surprise you when they decided to separate? Did it surprise Cedar?

5. What is Kat conveying when she says that she has “moved across the mountains to the green side?” (p. 49). How does this affect her reaction to George’s proposed RV vacation later on? Did you find Kat’s description of the trip sad or funny or both and what does this reflect about the character of George?

6. “I was happiest en route, with my laptop and a coffee in a sleeved paper cup, arranging ground transportation, stepping from the gate to plane to gate. Inhaling jet fumes in the optimism of rental-car parking lots” (p. 33). What does this tell you about the adult Cedar? Did you think that he had changed from the adolescent Cedar?

7. “In Kat’s hotel room, I stepped over a case of wine and cleared a half-finished Sunday Times crossword from a chair. She offered an insincere apology for the mess. On the desk were the contents of a sack lunch: a cellophane-wrapped sandwich, an apple, carrot sticks. Some books—In Cold Blood, something by Philip Roth. Her clothes all over the place. On the table sat a PowerBook. Toilet articles and coffee supplies, a printer, a sleeping bag, CDs in sleeves, masking tape. Loose change. A lone tampon clawing its way out of its applicator. A pack of spearmint gum” (p. 39). What sort of picture did this assortment of stuff show you? Did it match with your impressions of the young Kat?

8. In the chapter narrated by Kat—the manuscript of her memoir that Cedar is reading—Kat is an inexperienced pre-adolescent. What does she understand about her mother? What effects does her friendship with Margot have upon her?

9. “Cedar Rivers is a boy in my class who we call the Mad Scientist” (p. 59). How does Kat feel about Cedar at this point? When she is telling of the same incidents in Cedar’s voice in the first chapter, is she trying to give a different impression?

10. What did you think of the device of Cedar finding Kat’s book of short stories, Nymphonomicom, on Amazon.com along with the self-consciously erudite review written by Ryan Boudinot?

11. “You get to see parts of bodies that the bodies themselves never saw.” “Like a memoir. You get to see parts of lives that those living them never saw” (p. 73). What makes this exchange between the grown-up physician, Cedar and the writer, Kat so poignant?

12. “We spotted Kat’s father’s van—a white beaten-up Ford with the name of his employer, Apex Septic, stenciled crappily on the side—across the street in the KFC parking lot. A man appeared to be sleeping inside. The tailgate bore an ideology in the form of a bumper sticker: Bosses are like diapers. Full of shit and always on your ass!!!!” (p. 77). What does the meeting between Jerry and Kat at Kentucky Fried Chicken reveal about Kat’s connection to her father? Why does she want Cedar to come along? What does Cedar fail to notice about Jerry?

13. “We laughed. Veronica’s boyfriend, George, clomped stiffly up the stairs. He was an angular format of human being with tiny eyes in the kind of bald head that seems to automatically come with a mustache” (p. 23). What are Kat’s feelings about her perspective stepfather, George? What does Cedar fail to notice about George?

14. Do you think that Jerry and Veronica make an improbable couple? In the chapter Santa Cruz 1970, describing their meeting and courtship, what drew the two to each other?

15. “George hesitated then touched Kat’s shoulder. She shrugged him off. “Don’t touch me. Pervert . . .” (p. 99). When Cedar witnesses this interaction, he takes it as further proof that George has raped Kat. But Cedar assumed this from the beginning—why? Do you think it ever crossed Cedar’s mind that Kat might have been unfaithful, or would he rather believe that she had been raped? And when do you (as a reader) realize that he is wrong?”

16. “As I stared through my smudged reflection at the landscape, I had no idea how I was going to find Kat’s father, or where I would stay that night. The Greyhound deposited me at the station” (p. 133). In the chapter Beyond Mountains, Cedar sets out on a quest. “I’m not a runaway. I always meant to come back. I’m not like the other kids who come in here. I don’t do drugs, I get good grades. I’m studying medical text books on my own because I’m going to be a doctor.” “And you needed to go on a little road trip to find someone.” “‘Yeah, I needed to find my—’ I stopped” (p. 150). What emotions does he unconsciously express to Mr. Cox?

17. “You think you know everything about me. You think you can see inside my head. But you have no clue what I’m about. You barged into my life and started thinking you had authority over it. That thing that happened to me, I wish I had never told you about it. I wish I’d just taken care of it myself” (p. 159). Kat makes this dramatic statement at the end of Beyond Mountains. Think about the implications. What is really happening between Cedar and Kat?

18. “I. Hate. Boys” (p. 163). In Kat’s three-page screed about the opposite sex, what is she trying to clarify? Why won’t she allow George to be kind to her? Why is it impossible for her to understand her mother’s justifications for marrying George?

19. Do you think that George and Veronica make an improbable couple? What do you imagine happened after all the revelations at George and Veronica’s dramatic wedding?

20. “I said, ‘So what did Father Roth say? When you asked him if you were going to hell?’ ‘He told me that God is the world’s most prolific abortionist’” (p. 214). Were you surprised by Kat’s final revelations to Cedar? In the end, why do you think she wanted to see Cedar again and for him to read her book?

Suggestions for further reading:

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger; Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz; The Ice Storm by Rick Moody; The Rotters Club by Jonathan Coe; The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith; Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl; A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

Suggestions for films:
Juno; The Royal Tenenbaums; Memento; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

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