For 8-year-old Max, Budo is the world. His closest confidante, co-conspirator and assistant, Budo helps Max decide whether to wear a red T-shirt or blue one and warns him when a playground bully is approaching. Not content to simply follow in Max’s footsteps, Budo has a mind of his own — and frequently steps in when Max is in trouble.
Anyone would see the pair and assume they’re best friends. If anyone could actually see Budo, that is.
Max Delaney relies on his imaginary buddy to help him make sense of a world that is often confusing. As an autistic young man, Max frequently gets “stuck” in situations and grapples with the real-world problems others tackle with ease: like making friends, completing assignments, bonding with his dad through a shared game of baseball. What comes easy to others often seems impossible or pointless to Max, and it’s Budo who operates as a guide through life’s messy situations.
But Max has finally gotten himself into a scrape even Budo can’t fix.
Matthew Dicks’ Memoirs Of An Imaginary Friend was an emotional rollercoaster. Touted for fans of Emma Donoghue’s Room, I can see why readers would draw parallels between the two: Room’s narrator is a child with limited exposure to the world, describing simple things we experience every day — watching TV, turning on the vacuum, walking outside — in unusual ways. Dicks’ narrator, the imaginary Budo, describes the real world in much the same terms, grappling with why “human persons” operate as we do.
Though Budo’s speech patterns seem simplistic on the surface, I found that deceptive; we have to pay attention to what he’s describing, piecing together the saga as it unfolds. Budo is innocent and kind. All he knows of heartache is what he’s learned by watching crime shows with Max’s parents after hours, and trying to comprehend “evil” is tough. Having accompanied Max everywhere for years, Budo has seen more of the world than most imaginary friends — the ones discarded by kindergartners as soon as they make “real” buddies at school.
I loved that Budo is the one giving us Max’s story, explaining how “the bravest little boy in the world” faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles to do what other children accomplish without thinking. Being teased, taunted or — worse — ignored completely, Max presses on. His favorite teacher, Mrs. Gosk, stole the show in every scene — her hilarious turns of phrase, uttered to third-graders, had me cracking up.
But for all the humor present in Memoirs, the story was laced with suspense. I couldn’t believe how stressed out I got waiting to learn what would become of Max in the latter half of the book, racing through the story (on audio discs for me!) to figure out how he would save himself. Because that’s what he must do: save himself. Budo was so real I kept forgetting he was a figment of Max’s imagination. That in the end, it was up to Max to deliver himself from evil. For as much as I wanted Budo to be real, he wasn’t. (Or was he? I could see how this debate could rage. And make for excellent book club discussion.)
My only gripes concerns the story’s villain and the pacing in the second half. Though we get a bit of the villain’s back story, we’re never inside her head — and I wanted more. Unlike Dicks’ other characters, she doesn’t feel three-dimensional. I found myself constantly questioning her motives and her sanity, which was distracting. I wish we’d gotten more of a glimpse of her “backstage,” so to speak, when she talked with coworkers and police. And the pacing? I felt like I was constantly waiting for something to happen once the main event took place (sorry to be vague – trying to avoid any spoilers!). I didn’t feel disappointed by the ending, per say, but it was something akin to that. I guess the build-up felt a more exciting than the resolution.
Still, Dicks has crafted a unique, thought-provoking and memorable work in Memoirs Of An Imaginary Friend. Exploring social issues regarding autism with a light hand and highlighting what it means to be loyal and selfless, Dicks’ book pushes readers into a special boy’s life and makes it hard not to care about him — and Budo, that unforgettable ally.
4 out of 5!
A word on the audio narration: Narrator Matthew Brown did a fabulous job portraying Budo, who is described as being “sort of” a teenager — older than Max, anyway. His voice was just the right touch of child-like and mature, and I loved his impersonations of Mrs. Gosk and Max’s parents. He blended Budo’s innocent wonder and keen observation beautifully.