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Literature / Going Bovine

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Cameron, an Ordinary High-School Student who enjoys a joint and an LP more than other people's company, is cruising through his 16th year of life with low expectations and very few problems.

Then, he starts seeing fire giants and guys in freaky black armor and finds out he's dying of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (mad cow disease).

Fortunately, a bit of hope arrives in the form of Dulcie, an angel with a chocolate addiction, a hatred for snowglobes, and good taste in punk outfits. She tells him that in order to live, he has to find Dr. X, who tried to open a portal into an alternate dimension and ended up pulling dark energy through, which is what caused all of Cam's new problems. So he embarks on an insane road trip with Gonzo, a death-paranoid gamer dwarf, and meets along the way a lawn gnome who happens to be the Norse god Balder. Their mission? Save the world, get a cure for Cam, and maybe even discover what really matters in life.

Yes, it's just as insane as it sounds. But it's really good, even if you just take it all at face value. It includes, along with the Urban Fantasy candy-coating, some brilliant satire and a Coming-of-Age Story as a delicious, gooey caramel center. And maybe some frosting or sprinkles. Or even nougat. Mmm... nougat....


Written by Libba Bray.

Going Bovine oontaines examples of:

  • Achilles' Heel: Balder's backstory explains that when he was a child, his mother asked everything in the world not to harm him, and everything agreed except the mistletoe bush because it was too young to understand. As you might expect in a story about random coincidences (or if you're familiar with his actual story), this ends tragically.
  • Afterlife Antechamber: It's the Small World ride at Disney World! Guess Cameron's five-year-old instincts were right.
  • The Alleged Car: The Rocinante! Cost $3000 and some bribery, spray painted, falling apart, and has bull horns tied to the hood with wire.
  • Animal Motifs:
    • Cows show up continually and randomly, from the meditating cow mascot of the Buddha Burger (which, in addition to being seen at Buddha Burger itself, appears stenciled on Dulcie's wings and falling from the sky in the thousands like snow), to the brown-and-white "support Cameron" ribbons sold at his school, to imaginary Mrs. M's cow print apron, to Cameron's mad cow disease itself. The cow seems to represent to absurdity of the whole situation: The happy Buddha cow is selling beef hamburgers, the people putting up ribbons for Cameron don't know him or never liked him, Mrs. M is still wearing her hospital gown and plastic wristbands as she gardens, and the CJ is a thoroughly unromantic, almost ridiculous, disease that subtracts a little of the tragedy from the whole "dying young" thing, and strikes out of nowhere, without any apparent cause or reason.
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    • Then there's the road runner and the coyote, who keep showing up, with either the cartoon playing in the background or their pictures printed in advertisements. At different points in the book, Cameron identified with either the coyote or the road runner (actually becoming the road runner for a little while in the finale), and what they represent changes as well.
  • Another Dimension: The Copenhagen Interpretation got sucked into a wormhole during a concert and sent to another dimension. That dimension is apparently where Balder is from, as he mentions that he heard them perform in his home before he was cursed into garden gnome form and sent to our world.
  • Baleful Polymorph: Balder. A Norse god turned into a lawn gnome and subjected to the indignities of being stolen by drunken college kids and carried around the world to take pictures of landmarks.
  • The Big Easy: A large portion of plot-significant stuff happens in New Orleans.
  • Black Knight: The Wizard of Reckoning is described as wearing a black space suit/armor and cape and carrying a BFS.
  • Blessed with Suck: Dulcie explains that the prions in Cameron's brain are like "little body shop guys pimping the ride of his mind", which allows him to see things other people can't (signs, connections, Dulcie in her true form) and makes him the only one who can save the world. This doesn't change the fact that those prions are also killing him- eating holes in his brain and destroying basic functions like the ability to speak and move his limbs.
  • Book-Ends: The book begins with Cameron describing the high point of his life as the time he nearly drowned jumping out of the boat on the "It's A Small World" ride when he was five. Then the climax takes place in Tomorrowland, and the very last scene back on the Small World ride again.
  • Brand X: ConstaToons and Rad XL soda.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Jenna (Cameron's twin sister) has shades of this, though it isn't her defining characteristic
  • Brick Joke: Early on, Gonzo mentions in passing that his "type" has a southern accent and tattoos. Guess who he falls for later on?
  • Character Development: Cameron starts off as a jerkass loner who doesn't give a crap about anything. He hates his parents and sister and pretty much everyone else, he sees no point in doing anything, and buys The Great Tremolo's records just to make fun of someone more pathetic than himself. By the end of the book, he has made friends, saved the world, come to love his family, learned to care about and look out for other people, and really lived.
  • Chekhov's Running Gag: The Copenhagen Interpretation. Their music is what sent Dr. X on his trip to an alternate dimension and is what ends up saving the world.
    • Shithenge, started off as an off-hand joke about a kid's project. Later they see "my parents went to Shithenge" written on a t-shirt.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The snowglobe on Cameron's dad's desk, and more importantly, the figure inside it. Junior Webster's trumpet! The weird "macaroni sculpture" toy in the Dr. X video.
  • Church of Happyology: Almost literally, with CESSNAB (Church of Everlasting Satisfaction and Snack-'N'-Bowl).
  • Cluster F-Bomb: These little beauties are smattered throughout the book.
  • Cryptic Conversation: Dulcie specializes in these, though it isn't certain whether she's doing it on purpose or is just absentminded.
  • Dream Within a Dream:
    • Played with. There are times during the road trip when Cameron clearly sees things that others cannot. If the reader interprets the adventure as actually happening, then these are just hallucinations. But, if they interpret the crazy road trip part as Cameron's comatose dream, then this trope comes into play.
    • Played straight and fast in the scene where Cameron passes out during the fire giants' attack on the Konstant Kettle. He dreams that he is at Mrs. M's house by the sea, and talks to her as she gardens in the front yard. Then he gets tired, falls asleep in the grass, and dreams of being back in the hospital and seeing Glory and his parents. This scene could be taken even further if read as: Cam unconscious in the hospital dreaming he's at the Konstant Kettle dreaming he's at Mrs. M's dreaming he's in the hospital.
  • Dying Dream: Maybe. It seems in places that the entire road trip is Cameron's dying dream, but then the apparent dream continues after he dies, so maybe not.
  • Dying Alone: Cameron dies alone in a rare non-tragic example, which is actually quite peaceful.
  • Emotion Suppression: Specifically negative emotions. CESSNAB's desire to "embrace the positive" and not "hurt their happiness" is the extreme, satirizing what Bray calls our culture trying to "negate aggression and unhappy feelings”. But there are also subtle portrayals of negative emotions being suppressed in Cameron's parents. His dad is often angry and frustrated with his life, but always turns his back or simmers quietly instead of expressing his feelings aloud, and his mom makes no sound when she cries. Even when she is terrified and heartbroken at the prospect of losing her son, she cries silently.
    "The world should hear you when you cry."
  • Feather Motif: "Follow the feather". Dulcie leaves feathers from her wings behind as messages to Cameron several times, and he sees the feather logo and/or "follow the feather" slogan multiple times on signs, in newspaper ads, online, and on the side of a bus.
  • First-Person Smartass: Since the book is narrated by Cameron....
  • Flatline: Cam watches Glory turning off life-support machines at the hospital.
  • Hallucinations: Cameron has hallucinations as the CJ slowly turns him into a "sponge brain". While the reader can interpret the adventure part of the story as real or imagined, there are definite times when Cameron sees things that others around him cannot (ex: his conversation with Mrs. M in a field, the thousands of raining Buddha Burger cows, the Small World robot kids on the drive across Georgia).
  • Happiness Is Mandatory: Present in CESSNAB. The older kids who run the place seem to have genuinely bought in to the instant gratification "don't hurt your happiness" ideology, but there is also a large group (including Thomas and Library Girl) who, being human, feel unhappy sometimes and just put on a show to avoid getting in trouble.
  • Jedi Mind Trick: Discussed a lot by all the Star Fighter fans (which is about half the cast) and actually tried out (and failed) by Balder.
  • Jerk Ass Woobie: He's really not all that sympathetic in the beginning (see Character Development above) and can be downright irritating at times, but the reader can't help but feel bad for him and want him to succeed because he's dying!
  • Literal Genie: Averted with the wishing tree which "sort of" grants the wishes pinned to it. Cameron actually seems pretty pissed after Dulcie's explanation of how it usually grants the heart of the wish rather than what was actually asked for.
    • Ex: she tells a story about a girl who wished to be famous, but the deeper motivation for wanting fame is a desire to be loved. The hypothetical girl doesn't become famous but instead meets a guy and is happier with him than she would have been with the fame but without the lover.
    • We don't find out until the end what Cameron wishes for, but when we do, it's clear that the tree did the same "sort of" wish granting to him. He just wrote "I wish" above the printed words "to live" on the scrap of paper from Junior Webster's message. By "I wish to live" he probably meant "I wish not to die of mad cow disease", but instead what he got was a chance to really experience life- to truly live- before dying of mad cow disease.
  • Living on Borrowed Time: Dulcie gives Cameron the old Disney World e-ticket that holds off the progression of the disease for 2 weeks. The ticking clock aspect of the story is made painfully clear as the color fades and titles disappear one by one.
  • Magic Music: While not explicitly magic, music is described in mystical terms and has some strong, unexplainable powers. Also, the B flat outside the range of human hearing that comes from the black hole and the power of Junior Webster's trumpet.
  • Make a Wish: The wishing tree in Hope Georgia that has scraps of paper with peoples' wishes written on them instead of leaves. As in most stories, the wishes always come true, but not usually in the way expected.
  • Motifs: In addition to the animal and feather motifs, there is also the recurring appearance of the Disney World "It's a Small World" ride. The book begins with Cameron recounting the story of when he freaked out on the ride as a kid and jumped out of the boat to escape. The last scene takes place on the same ride, Cameron having come full-circle and with a very different reaction this time. Cam imagines he sees the robot-kid characters waving to him from along the road as he drives across Georgia, and he gets the other tourists at Disney World to sing the Small World song with him before the finale. Even the words of the song, "It's a world of laughter, a world of tears, a world of hopes, and a world of fears," reflects exactly what Cameron experiences when he leaves his life of apathy to take on the crazy quest Dulcie gives him.
  • Mind over Matter: The Wizard of Reckoning has Darth Vader-style mind powers that he uses to kill Junior Webster and incapacitate Cameron with only a raised hand.
  • Mind Screw: And how! Is Cameron dying in the hospital of mad cow disease, or taking a crazy road trip across the country? Is Dulcie just a figment of his imagination guiding him on a hallucinatory journey? If it was real, what happened to Gonzo at the end? Where the hell is Cameron at the finale? Was he hallucinating that chase scene? Why is microwave popcorn so good, and what does Tobias Plummer and all that stuff that gets read on tabloids and billboards have to do with the plot?!
  • Nerdy Inhaler: Gonzo carries one, which he uses to combat panic attacks, though Cameron is doubtful about how much he actually needs it. "You're yelling. If you can yell, you can breathe."
  • Nigh Invulnerable: Balder loves to demonstrate his ability not to be hurt by allowing himself to be stabbed, shot, and hit with various thrown objects. However, he does have one weakness...
  • Noodle Implements: The Ultimate Peace Weapon from Starfighter is mentioned offhand several times, but it's never explained what the thing is!
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Gonzo. The Gonz-Man. His real name is Paul Gonzales, but this is only used once in the whole book.
  • Our Angels Are Different: Dulcie is a pretty girl with wings, but she surely doesn't look or act like the classical depiction of angels other than that.
  • Reality TV: YA!TV specializes in the stupidest reality shows imaginable.
  • Road Trip Plot: While the road trip part is only about half the story, it is the more important and eventful half.
  • Satire: In following with story that inspired it, Don Quixote, Going Bovine satirizes a lot of its contemporary culture: reality TV; standardized testing in school and the sacrifice of real education for memorizing facts for tests; religious cults and fundamentalists; and the shallow, silly, careless, mindlessness of teen culture and media.
  • "Save the World" Climax: Subverted. We expect the story to go this way, but the world-saving comes kind-of out of the blue, and afterward Cameron is still dying, still has to find Dr. X and the possible cure, and still has to help Balder find his ship.
  • Saving the World: Dulcie charges Cameron to save the world by finding Dr. X, who will be able to close the wormhole, banish the Wizard of Reckoning and fire giants, and cure Cameron's illness.
  • Sex Equals Love: Averted. Cameron finally gets to sleep with his crush, Staci, but she's pretty smashed and nothing comes of it afterward — she walks out on him afterward. Mitigated by the fact that he gets to spend the rest of his afterlife with Dulcie. Hell yes.
  • Shout-Out: ConstaToons constantly shows Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons.
  • Shown Their Work: The author obviously put a lot of work into researching the medical parts, as Cameron's symptoms are very accurate, despite the craziness of the story in general.
  • Sickly Neurotic Geek: Gonzo! Well, more hypochondriac than actually sick.
  • The Stoner: There's three of them, hanging out in the Calhoun High School fourth-floor bathroom.
  • Straight Gay: Gonzo is this for sure. The reveal comes as a genuine surprise.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Everything that happens in the book is real for Cameron, so the reader has to draw their own conclusions about what is "really" happening. But then again, the point of the story is that it doesn't matter whether he's actually driving the Rocinante across Florida or whether he's lying unconscious in the hospital and dreaming, it all still happened, he lived, and it changed him.
  • Viking Funeral: For Balder, or as close as they could get with the things on hand, which only makes it sadder.
  • Whole Plot Reference: To Don Quixote. A tall, thin, half-crazy guy drags his short, squat, far more down-to-earth best friend on half-hallucinatory adventures against threats no one else understands, pulled forward by "Dulcie", the crazy's love interest, riding around in their smashed-up, puttering mode of transportation, the Rocinante. Does anything ring a bell here? Anything? Plus, they live in Hidalgo, Texas, a reference to the full title of Don Quixote ("El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha").
  • Wild Teen Party: The YA!TV Party House is a permanent one.
  • Windmill Crusader: There is constant doubt as to whether Cameron's cross-country adventure is really happening, or if it's all hallucination.
  • With This Herring: Cam and Gonzo start their quest by running away from the hospital, so it makes sense that they're ill-equipped. They start out with the clothes on their backs, a little cash, a bag of hospital toiletries, and Gonzo's special recycled toilet paper. Throughout the book they have to come up with creative ways of getting money, including robbing a drug dealer and going on a game show.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Played with. Dulcie lets slip that she knows about people's future lives (and deaths). She refuses to tell Cameron about his future, but after some wheedling gives in and tells him about the guys he's driving to Florida. Cameron is appropriately freaked out when she tells him one of the guys is going to join the army and be blown to bits by a land mine the next year. She says the future isn't fixed, that she just sees things as how they will turn out following the current path of events, which could plausibly be changed. She seems pretty resigned to that future, though, and not very hopeful that it will be changed, even when Cameron tries to do so by warning the guy.


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