There are already too many Holden Caulfields in the field of teenage narration. Books that ably capture the tone J.D. Salinger pioneered are homages; every substandard imitator is an insult. The sheltered teen who is the subject of Peter Bognanni’s debut, The House Of Tomorrow, couldn’t spot a phony at 40 paces, but his quirks stay novel because they don’t have to bear the plot’s weight.
Since his parents were killed in a plane crash, Sebastian has lived with his grandmother in Iowa’s only geodesic dome, promoted on billboards along the highway as a tourist attraction whose admission fees help make ends meet. A former disciple (and possibly lover) of Buckminster Fuller, Sebastian’s grandmother home-schooled him for years with the vague premise of grooming him for a special role in her plan to show the world the error of its ways, but their solitary idyll is breached the day she has a stroke while giving a tour to a local mother and son. While his grandmother recuperates, Sebastian becomes enmeshed with the Whitcomb family as the newly separated Janice recruits him to draw out her son Jared, a teenage heart-transplant recipient pushing back against his inevitable return to high school.
Given Sebastian’s background and intelligence, it would be easy to make him a kind of tuneless know-it-all—a role his new friend Jared often performs, to his consternation—or else give him a Mark Haddon-esque reason for his behavior once he leaves the dome. Instead, his particular blend of erudition and innocence of the ways of the world carries his story out of the range of cliché for most of The House Of Tomorrow. As he attempts to integrate himself into a “normal” American household, his spikily incorrect vocabulary and alarming willingness to ask questions makes his observations fresh. Every encounter with an embittered record-store clerk or diner waitress is an object to be studied under a microscope.
Only at the end does Bognanni drop the strong case that this oddball is unsuited to join in with town life after so many years of being groomed as a savant; he’s endeared to his adoptive family in a scene that could have been lifted wholesale from any ’80s teen comedy. This act of resolution drags down The House Of Tomorrow, upsetting the balance between Sebastian’s new knowledge and old habits, but at least he doesn’t see it coming to sneer at it.