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Book Review! It Happened In Boston?

Ten years ago, if you had asked me what my favorite book was, I don’t know what I would have said. Maybe The Bell Jar or something equally cliche for a teen-aged girl to relate to. (Hey, I still think it’s a good book!) I consider myself lucky to be able to answer the “What’s your favorite book of all time?” query now, because some people just don’t have the luxury of picking up a book that they absolutely love from the first sentence on.

Over the last few years I’ve recommended this title countless times to all of my friends (I don’t think any of those bastards ever read it, though) and now I recommend it to you, bibliophiles! I love this book. You might not. I understand that! Books speak to everyone in different ways, some moreso than others and this one is… well. It’s weird. It’s dark. It’s got a sinister edge and a heavy dose of strange humor.

So here it is, my favorite book of all time!

It Happened In Boston? by Russell H. Greenan.

This is the book’s description, according to Random House, and I love how it sounds so I’m interjecting it right… now!:

“First published by Random House in 1968, Russell H. Greenan’s It Happened in Boston? is the story of a brilliantly talented, unbalanced artist who strives to meet God face-to-face in order to destroy Him. It is “a magic spell of a book—phantasmagoric, lushly written, full of unforgettable characters and brilliant twists of plot,” writes Jonathan Lethem in his Introduction. With a vivid depiction of the art world and a breathtaking narrative that incorporates forgery, time travel, and murder, Greenan’s hilarious and disturbing debut novel—now an underground cult classic—is ripe for rediscovery.”

I KNOW, RIGHT?! Oh, that didn’t do it for you? Let me give you a little background, then, about why I picked this up in the first place.

Picture it! Northeast Ohio. 2002. A young girl is working part time at a bookstore and grumbling about lazy customers after a long shift on a snowy day. That young girl, ladies and gentlemen, was me. I remember it quite clearly, I was picking up wayward magazines and swearing under my breath when I stumbled over Boston?. No, literally. I STUMBLED over it, ripping the cover and copyright page clean off because some careless jerk left it lying in the middle of the floor.

I picked it up, inspecting the damage I’d inflicted, and I couldn’t help but glancing at the newly exposed first page. The opening sentence? “Lately I have come to feel that the pigeons are spying on me.”


Greenan develops his characters obscenely well and his plot sprawls across the pages delicately, but in a distinctly forward motion so that this book becomes an actual pleasure to read. There isn’t the “OMGOMG WHAT NEXT?!” brand of suspense that many writers go overboard with, but there IS just enough of it to keep the pages turning. Why is he poisoning pigeons? They ARE ugly, aren’t they? Should I lie under my own bed too? There’s an interesting essay on the benefits of it. Is this book the reason they don’t leave sugar bowls out in restaurants anymore? I’d never use one. Could art forgery really be committed this way? I think it sounds convincing, if you could find a painter of the same caliber as Leonardo.

The narrating character has a clear, strong voice and the story seems so unintentionally well defined that it’s hard to put down. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. I want you to read it. I want you to feel as strongly about it as I do, so I will stop there.

In parting, I’ll tell you another story. Last year, a friend and I were visiting a really neat and kind of old, somewhat creepy used bookstore in Massachusetts. I don’t even remember the name of it but there were books everywhere. I happened to, quite literally again, stumble across Boston? on the bottom shelf of a particularly large wall o’ books. A hardcover, first edition copy, just like that. Voila! Magical! Hooray!

Inspired by that find, I wrote an email to Mr. Greenan soon after. (My grandfather can’t even turn a goddamn computer on, let alone reply to a twenty-something writing him gushy emails.) This is part of the reply that I received:

Thank you for your delightful letter. To hear that someone as young as you enjoys reading (and rereading) the forty-year-old novel of someone as old as me is wonderfully gratifying. I’m sure there are many far more successful writers than me who do not receive such lovely encomiums. One of my daughters – she lives in an ashram in Kerala, India – would say that you didn’t stumble on that paperback by chance, that it was all fated to happen.

As for finding the first edition in a semi-creepy used-book store, that, I suppose, is where one might expect to come across such a story. I once saw an English edition of BOSTON? in the very center of a London occult bookshop window off Charing Cross Road. Flattering though this was, I didn’t go in and ask the owner why it was displayed so prominently. God knows what he might have told me.

I’m not big on fate, myself, but I can’t help agreeing with Mr. Greenan. No other work has influenced or inspired me as much as his has. I feel quite lucky to have disfigured it in the first place. This book, a fantastically dark comedy, full of laughter and sadness and hope and fear, is something that I will never stop recommending to people in the hopes that it will inspire them to step out of their boundaries, to think about life a little differently.

What I’m trying to say here, my book nerdlings, is that I hope you decide to pick this up and give it a read and I extra, super, mega, really hope that you enjoy it as much as I have.

Now go read a book, hippie!

Images: Random House

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  1. Robert says:

    Dear Jessica, as a fellow rabid fan of It Happened in Boston, I wanted to let you know that I am publishing the first-ever audiobook of IHIB? in partnership with Blackstone Audio. Tentative release date is December 17, 2014. It will be available on Blackstone’s site as well as Audible, iTunes, and everywhere audiobooks are sold. This is a labor of love and I hope you’ll help me spread the word.  Many thanks!

    Robert Fass

  2. Christie says:

    I am in the middle of reading this book and found your article after looking it up on google. I am really enjoying this book and can totally relate to what you wrote about it!
    btw I think it’s really cool that he answered your email!!!

  3. Deathmonkey41 says:

    Awesome review. Couldn’t agree more- stumbled across this book too and got hooked the same way you did.

  4. Gordon McVicar says:

    Just read it,,,,,you WILL NOT be disappointed.

  5. candace says:

    I read this book over 30 years ago and never forgot it. I was compelled to google it tonight. That should say alot about the power of this story. Only one other book have I read with the same sense of experiencing a decent into insanity…the Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips. Both are terrifying and have the reader crying “Stop”…but you cannot stop.

  6. cigalechanta says:

    some of thr characters are based on real peole, I met a few of them.

  7. Brian says:

    The review was great – but the book is horrible. A man thinks he is a great artist, sits in the park “traveling” to other eras, eventually believes he can meet god by killing 7 innocent people. So he poisons 7 people, and goes mad. But it isn’t as exciting as that sounds, nor that interesting. Do you want to read some hack writer try to write the inner monologs of a reclusive insane person? There must be a billion better books out there – a random pick would serve you better, as this is the worst book I ever finished (and I only finished it because based on this review I thought it had to get better – it got worse).

  8. Lisa says:

    If it makes you feel any better, Josh got out the copy you gave me and he really is reading it. 🙂

  9. Neal S. says:

    This. Sounds. AWESOME!!!

    Just put it on my wishlist! Once I get my Kindle I’ll read it!

  10. Bill D. says:

    I’m convinced. Adding it to my Bookmooch wish list, though if I see it in an actual store somewhere first, I’ll probably pay actual money to get my hands on it that much sooner.

  11. I’m just going to reiterate that my friends are all bastards…

  12. Josh says:

    When you first mentioned this book to me a few years ago I assumed it was about baseball. I’m not sure why… I should probably pay more attention.

  13. @Lisa and @Asher: You’re both damn dirty liars! (But I guess I still like you anyway…even if you ARE the aforementioned bastard friends.)

    Everyone else: I hope you find it as enthralling as I do. It’s a great read on a hot summer day! (Or whenever you read it, I guess.) And if you hate it, well… don’t send me hate mail. It’s not my fault I have a strange sense of book lovin’.

  14. Asher says:

    This bastard (er, bitch) will absolutely be ordering a copy from Amazon over the weekend. I can’t get it out of my head now., thanks to you!

    Brilliant review, Miss. I love it.

  15. leo says:

    Sounds really good, I have a hard time reading books because as soon as I get into it, I start to get really sleepy, unless its a really good book. So I have a really good feeling about this one. Wish me luck.

  16. Brandon says:

    Sounds awesome. I love the premise.

  17. Chris Hardwick says:

    I LOVE THIS!!! You wonderful book nerds keep the site literate!

    Thank you and please keep it up!

  18. Jen says:

    This book sounds really interesting. I just got a coupon for Barnes and Noble yesterday and was trying to figure out what I should use it on… now I know. Can’t wait to check it out.

  19. Shayna says:

    ill try and go to a Barnes and Noble this weekend and see if they have it.
    i really want to read it now it sounds good.

  20. Lisa says:

    I’m going to read it someday, I swear!

  21. Jung says:

    I’m adding this to my que.

  22. Tim says:

    I’m in. Picking up a copy next payday.

    I’m impressed you can pick a single novel to be your all time favorite. If I were pressed I think mine would be Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon. Though Stephen King’s IT ranks very high as does Richard Laymon’s The Traveling Vampire Show. Of course, there’s always Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk or AAAH I CAN’T CHOOSE…