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I found out about Gordon Korman because as a desperation move my fifth-grade teacher started reading his books aloud to my class. Korman is a writer who has gone massively downhill in the last decade or so; his recent work is slight, slick, overmarketed and dull. But his children's and YA titles from the eighties and nineties have some lovely screwball comedy in the classical mode and a sense of subtle weirdness that reminds me vaguely of Daniel Pinkwater. I still cheerfully consider Losing Joe's Place a great rarity-- a book that is simply and reliably funny. I habitually reread I Want to Go Home! and Son of Interflux on a fairly regular basis.

My childhood library did not have all of Korman. I've been tracking his back catalog down since. Bugs Potter Live at Nickaninny is a sequel to Who Is Bugs Potter?, which I did manage to read as an adolescent, and which is neither Korman's best nor worst. The sequel turns out to be a notch down from the original, not deadly but not remotely special.

Bugs Potter, as readers of the first book learn within about three words, is an adolescent boy desperately obsessed with drumming. He is incapable of conversation about anything else. Consequently, the plots of both books involve long series of conspiracies on the part of the universe to keep him away from drums, far from rock concerts, and so on. The first book gives him a more relatable foil, a flautist called Adam who only wants to manage not to flunk out of orchestra camp; the second book simply packs his family up onto a vacation about two thousand miles from anywhere in the Canadian Northwest Territories.

Sadly, without a relatively normal person around the obsessions of Bugs and various members of his family aren't anchored in enough reality to be very funny. They need an outside observer to explain to them all how crazy they are being; it's much more entertaining when people know that and then do whatever it is anyway. The inevitable progression of Bugs Potter's vacation from his family's single tent in the middle of the wilds to the inadvertent founding of a nationally televised rock festival has ingenious momentum, yes, but there's nothing to anchor the gears.

In addition, there's an annoying plot thread about anthropologists who are trying to study a lost tribe of local Native Americans. On the one hand, the anthropologists are demonstrably and obviously total lunatics, and the one guy from the tribe who happens to be present is on vacation from his family's home in New York City, where his extended family obstinately refuse to act like the subjects of anthropological research. On the other hand, this thread feels unpleasantly as though it is more exploiting a standard set of jokes about Native Americans (funny names, etc.) than puncturing them; Korman tells the jokes at every possible opportunity but only deflates them about half the time. It could be much more aggravating but it still did not remotely make me happy.

If you're going to read one of the Bugs Potter books, read the first, but if you're going to read Korman generally, he's done a lot better than either of these. Just don't read anything that came out after about 2002. I have hopes that he'll get over it eventually, but he's gone through a long streak of bad writing.


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