Beth Bosworth came of age in Teaneck, New Jersey, as it became the first American school district with an all-white board to vote for bus-enforced integration; she had material and chops aplenty to write a memoir without breaking a sweat. But though the plot of her first novel, Tunneling, uses the headline-grabbing events of that time and place as a frame, the narrative revolves around the self-protective fantasy world of a brainy, humorless 12-year-old named Rachel Finch.

Burning with literary ambition and aloof to the philistines around her, Rachel spends her days awaiting the nocturnal visits of S-Man, a superhero who takes her on time-traveling missions to save writers–Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Chinua Achebe–from an archvillain named Laff Riot. When another girl equipped with the same first name, writerly dreams, and gawky self-importance moves to town the two forge a hilariously precocious literary friendship. But when the first Rachel suspects the newcomer, Rachel Fish, of having a superior soul, she hoards the secret of S-Man, a betrayal with tragic consequences.

Bosworth says the moral intensity of the Rachels’ relationship sprang from the black-and-white righteousness of the comics she loved as a child, when comic books represented “a subversive literature, at once colorful, wildly exciting, and full of the big questions, ranging from ‘What is the meaning of life?’ to ‘Why does Lex Luthor get so mad about being bald?'”

The narrator of her autobiographical first book, a thematically linked collection titled A Burden of Earth and Other Stories, is a now-grown-up molested child from Teaneck struggling with adulthood. Though Publishers Weekly gave the debut a starred review, Bosworth says the material brought her audience more sorrow than pleasure. For her second book she wanted to evoke a tale of Teaneck that would transcend the experience of any one family, so she modeled Rachel on a childhood pal. “Since I was diving into fantasy with flights through time and capes anyhow, I turned up her intelligence a notch…and then, because I knew the main character was rendered more than a bit obnoxious, which maybe we were back then, I gave her an even more obnoxious friend.”

Tunneling’s flights of fantasy are weighed down by psychological symbolism, and as they come to obscure Rachel’s reality the story gets heavy and violent. But the girls’ comic awfulness and Boswell’s gift for rendering visual gags in prose (at one point a hamster shoots out of a chemical explosion, followed by a snickering green minivillain) make the book as charming as it is disturbing. To glibly ignore tragedy may make one a Laff Riot, says Bosworth, but “without laughter we can get so trapped in canned thought. Humor for me is a way out of self-consciousness, and with it we can write about ideas without giving ourselves airs, I hope, but it is also a way out of making readers feel sad.”

Currently, Bosworth teaches English and writing at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, where she also edits the school’s literary magazine. Last winter she submitted “A Patriot’s Act,” a chapter from a new novel in progress, to the Chicago lit magazine Bridge, and she’ll be in town this week for two Bridge-sponsored readings: one at Quimby’s on November 18 and one at the Bridge space the following day (see the Readings and Lectures listings for more information). Her story’s included in the latest issue of the magazine, a reverse-bound double issue organized around the themes of success and failure. She’s on the success side.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.