Canisius alum makes literary debut

By Marie Rossi

When I first picked up Paul Cumbo’s “Boarding Pass”, I was encouraged by the detailed summary on the back cover, one that suggested that this story was a “modern coming-of-age tale.” After years of reading about distraught teenagers, this book seemed to promise something with its characters being college students, something more tangible to me.

Twenty-one-year-old, Matt Derby, is a college senior with a common problem: he’s not quite sure what to do with his life after graduation.

However, Cumbo – an alum of Canisius – forgot to mention on the back cover that the majority of the book is set back in 1996, when Matt Derby is a young 15 year-old off to boarding school for the first time, which negates both the modern aspect and the implication that the story revolves around college life. Nevertheless, Matt pulls you swiftly into his high school world, an all-boys prep school in Maryland, where he meets other young men who have all seemingly been cast in the same mold. As narrator, Matt is a somewhat flat character whose own story is unremarkable, but also one the reader might be expected to overlook as the spotlight repeatedly lands on another character, Matt’s close friend and roommate, Trey Daniels. As the two spend a significant amount of time together rowing on the crew team, studying, and spending weekends at each other’s houses, the narrative allows the reader to sink into Trey’s downward spiral as he struggles to remain at the prestigious school. They make their way through tenth grade, battling Trey’s family issues and non-existent work ethic as life continues to unfurl around them.

Though the book may have structural issues – even now, the need for the flashback style confuses me – Cumbo brings to life a highly realistic story of circumstance and friendship, surrounded by valid quotes such as, “They say that’s the thing about this generation: we have so many choices that we can’t make decisions.” A claim that has remained relatable to current readers. I imagine the author is throwing a bone to Canisius when Matt talks of his college education, saying, “Fortunately, one of the gifts bestowed by my expensive education is a remarkable knack for composing pretty convincing bullshit, the kind that’s custom made for a 300-level philosophy final.” Vivid imagery supports Cumbos’s well-rounded secondary characters, as the small details play a large role in making these teenagers feel as if they could come to life. “Boarding Pass” has a largely autobiographical feel, made even more powerful by the subtle references to Buffalo (Matt’s hometown), and although some may have been lost on me, I’m sure the allusions will make any native Buffalonian smile with an easy familiarity. The story successfully slips the reader into another world, a world in which the struggles of growing up do not seem as different as the ones we have ourselves.

I’m usually not one to encourage or discourage people from reading a book solely based on my reading preferences. I’ve read over one thousand books and have a taste that ranges and will literally read anything that you put in front of me. It’s not that the book was entirely bad, but it’s lack of climax suggested that it was one to be read over a long period of time, definitely not a page turner. Unlike like other “coming-of-age” novels, it never made me question the decisions I have made and characters seemed to remain mostly static throughout the length of the story. I will, however, say that the teenagers were portrayed realistically in their issues, stress and drama. I would recommend the novel for those who are interested in realistic fiction, but don’t take the mystical mountain that graces the cover as a sign that you’ll climb some higher knowledge of realization.

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  1. […] was pretty damn flattering, even if the rest of the review wasn’t anything spectacular. The review in the Canisius College student newspaper, The Griffin, (for which I used to be a columnist) was somewhat underwhelming, but hey, it is what it is. When […]

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