Author: Bill Konigsberg
Published: May 26th, 2015
Length: 336 Pages
Hardcover ISBN: 9780545648936
Trade Paperback ISBN: 9781338032451
Displaced from the disconnected New York environment he’s grown up in, Carson Smith and his mother fly to Billings, Montana, to take care of Carson’s dying father, despite the fact that his parents’ marriage ended fourteen years earlier. Within minutes of arriving, his mother drops him off at the zoo where he meets Aisha. According to Carson, “in terms of attractiveness, she is in the 99.9th percentile of zoo employees” (3). But what Carson quickly learns is that Aisha is not a zoo employee at all. She’s just been sleeping overnight there ever since her father kicked her out of the house for being gay.
It takes a bit of time for the real narrative of The Porcupine of Truth to take over. Despite knowing that Aisha is gay and knowing that his romantic attraction to her is not reciprocated, their friendship develops incredibly quickly. This is good because it is this friendship that allows the road-trip set-up of the novel to fully take shape. Carson quickly becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to his grandfather, who disappeared from Billings, Montana years earlier when Carson’s own father was just a kid. The resulting multi-state adventure with Aisha to track down his missing grandfather is where the deeper themes and concerns of the novel really come to light.
What makes The Porcupine of Truth an odd novel at times is that it is an LGBTQ+ novel told from the perspective of a straight character. Carson’s own self-centered quest to find his grandfather means that, while he undoubtedly cares for Aisha, he is often unaware or unable to grasp the full scope of what she is going through. Often, the strongest parts of the novel are when she is able to break into his journey and claim a space on the page to let her story be told. And this theme of other people intruding into your story is a crucial idea that is reiterated time and again on the duo’s trip. From old couples living a minimalist life in Montana to liberal Mormons in Salt Lake City to youth LGBTQ+ volleyball enthusiasts in San Francisco, leaving New York does more to expose Carson to people than being pressed up against them in the subway ever did. But it is a hard journey for Carson, who’s pride often keeps him from truly embracing his interactions with other people. Thus, for some of the consistent characters Carson interacts with throughout the novel (his father, his mother), it takes almost until the end of the novel to fully appreciate them because it takes about that long for Carson to get a grip on who they are. This could be a problem for some readers as Carson is, at times, almost annoyingly self-absorbed and, simultaneously, dangerously oblivious.
The Porcupine of Truth is a story about identity. It’s about discovering who you are and where you come from and how other people play a role in that development both through their presence and their absence. As much as Carson’s journey is about finding his grandfather for his father, it is also a journey to discover who he is. Carson’s yearning for this sense of inner-discovery in the external world reflects an insightful understanding on the part of the novel and Konigsberg as to the significance of our relationships to other people. The novel argues that human identity comes from community and connection as much as it does from personal opinions and perspectives.
Alongside this quest for self-understanding is also a predominant question about religion and the place of religion in the lives of youth today. In one way or another, everyone Carson and Aisha meet on their quest has some perspective or idea of religion or spirituality. Likewise, Carson and Aisha both carry strong personal opinions on the matter of religion. While Aisha’s are quite understandable, some of Carson’s interactions seem almost drummed up for effect. Where the religious element of the book shines through is in the end and the way it actually ties in quite well with the overall theme of knowing yourself and knowing other people. But it once again demonstrates the fact that The Porcupine of Truth is a novel that solidifies its value only at the end. Either because of the perspective character used or because of the near constant stops for interactions that never quite seem to function as self-contained episodes, The Porcupine of Truth is a novel that needs its ending to make its beginning and middle meaningful.