The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice by Nathan Leslie
Kensington, MD: Atticus Books, 2012.
204 pp.

In Nathan Leslie's The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, our titular character, Tommy, goes through a most unusual childhood. Orphaned at a young age, Tommy is first taken in by his grandmother, and then is moved around from relative to relative (and even, at one point, to a woman who pretends to be his mother). His formative years are rife with bizarre circumstances, an erratic education, and vast hyperbole. But Leslie has a unique moral to his story: that the strange world of Tommy Twice exists somewhere within us all.

Tommy's earliest memories are of his Gaga, which is what he calls his mother's mother. She is the first relative to take him in, and she pours the concrete for the foundation of his personality. Strong, strict, and not at all sentimental, Gaga puts him to work at an early age, forcing him to fend for himself and teaching him important lessons. She once goes so far as to leave him in the middle of nowhere with some food and water, telling him to find his own way home. This does much to instill in Tommy the ability to always rely on himself.

Gaga isn't the only one to teach him important lessons. Leslie weaves an intricate tale for Tommy, creating a fictional world in which an orphan is raised by various women, all of whom teach him something about growing up. It's like a fantastical coming-of-age story, a marriage of Bildungsroman and magical realism.

My favorite part about The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice is the charming hyperbole — something expected from a "tall tale," but told in an innocent, child-like way from Tommy's eyes. The first aunt Tommy stays with, Tess, has a mountain of hair, which houses all kinds of items: various animals (some alive, some dead), weapons, and even a tricycle, among many other things. His aunt Penny has four different houses, one for each season, and each one is an exact replica of the others, with the only difference being the colors inside the house.

But not every experience Tommy has is a pleasant one. He must face many hardships as well — not just the difficult physical journeys between each move, but also the pain of not knowing his own parents. He carries their photo with him and thinks of them often, wishing he could be like the other children at his school, living with their mothers and fathers. Tommy is exquisitely lonely in a way no child should ever be. He is isolated, different, and wholly alone.

What is Leslie trying to tell us through Tommy? The ending implies that we have a choice in the matter — that we can choose Tommy's fate. Leslie only guides us through part of his childhood, and then it's up to us to determine what happens to him from there. Or perhaps we'll take it as a farce, and accept that none of these things ever happened. Leslie draws attention to the absurdity of fiction, bringing out the obvious lie: of course what we're reading isn't true. But he has written Tommy so well that it's easy to fall into his life, to believe that he is real, to trust that these really are the experiences of a child.

The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice is expertly crafted and convincing, bringing out the full charm of childhood exaggeration. He sets us up in a fort made out of sheets, brings us a flashlight, and tells us to pretend we're out camping in the woods somewhere. Leslie's novel is nothing if not fun, despite its more painful moments. I found myself cheering Tommy and sticking with him in good times and bad. And perhaps this is Leslie's greatest message to us: to know that no matter what we've been through, no matter what strange and wonderful things our childhoods were full of, we can always find someone to hear our story and be by our side.