Letters to Superman
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Last night I finished revisiting THE KRYPTONITE KID, a 1979 epistolary novel by Joseph Torchia. I first read this novel in the summer of 1996 - I was participating in a reading challenge between fifth and sixth grade where the student who read the most pages (not books, just pages - it was a weird contest) would receive a pizza party. Spurned by a desire to have my own personal pizza party, I made multiple trips to the library each week - absorbing books as if I was an addict and literature was my required fix. At first, I tried to read adult books - thinking that the extended page counts would mean that I could win the contest with fewer books. I realized soon, though, I could read kid books faster and rack up a higher page count with less effort. So, during my trips to the library, I would trawl the kids’ section in search of interesting books I could read quickly. Enter: THE KRYPTONITE KID.
The book was nestled in among battered Jerry Spinelli novels and biographies of past presidents - its cover was a shiny foil sea of stars with a rocket chasing its way through space. The inside flap of the book cover promised a story about a young boy obsessed with Superman, communicating to the superhero via penned letters. As a kid, I wasn’t that big a fan of Superman (he had recently died and been resurrected in a long, protracted storyline that confused me) but I liked comics and this was an era before libraries routinely stocked graphic novels on their shelves. In other words, I took what I could get.
Knowing I had a pizza party to win, I read THE KRYPTONITE KID (276 pages) in a single afternoon. Even still, I lost the contest. You see, after reading THE KRYPTONITE KID, I was left in a state of emotional shock so profound it took me weeks before I could build up the courage to read another book.
The book follows a seven-year-old boy named Jerry in 1959 America. He attends a Catholic school taught by nuns as severe as they are holy. During the day, religion is beaten into him at school, at night discipline is beaten into him by his emotionally distant father and perpetually depressed mother. His best friend is Robert and, several times a day, the two of them write letters to Superman, who they believe to be as real as their teacher, their parents, God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. These letters to Superman fill the Man of Steel in on their lives, their struggles to go through First Communion and their desperate pleading for a response. Any response will do. They’ll settle for a letter back from Clark Kent but what they really hope for is to see Superman fly to their home in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania and prove wrong all the classmates and adults who love to point out that Superman is a fictional character.
It doesn’t matter what proof others offer - one morning, over breakfast, Jerry’s dad shows him a newspaper headline about television Superman actor George Reeves’ suicide - Jerry and Robert’s faith remains strong. Superman is real. He’s real and perfect and their best chance to escape their oppressively religious lives and experience some of the excitement they regularly read about in funny books.
As THE KRYPTONITE KID progresses, readers begin to realize that what seemed cute in Jerry and Robert’s faith in their fantasy actually has a dangerous edge - Jerry is untethered by reality in a way that will only lead to tragedy. And tragedy does follow - like a wallop to the head. The novel is an exploration of faith, fantasy, sexuality, family and the longing for escape. But while it is a certainty that Superman will always best his foes, escape isn’t a guarantee in reality. Jerry was born into a specific family during a specific time in a specific part of the country and he will always carry that religious guilt and succeeding neuroses for the rest of his life, however long it might be. Jerry is a marked kid and no amount of comic books will save him from his future.
I cannot believe THE KRYPTONITE KID was shelved in the kids section. Even ignoring the film’s dark exesential themes, the film is full of the kind of regressive discussion of race and sexuality you might expect for a book set in a ‘50s Catholic household. That said, I 100 percent recommend THE KRYPTONITE KID - it’s a deeply personal story about a young boy trying to figure shit out in a world beyond his comprehension with the help of the only thing that makes sense to him - Superman.
Reading THE KRYPTONITE KID again this week brought back all those memories of reading the book for the first time - it is a profoundly sad novel and I, a 12-year-old kid, was not prepared to experience that sadness. Even today, I’m not sure I, a 38-year-old man, am fully prepared to experience that sadness. I love THE KRYPTONITE KID, though - deeply, profoundly, completely - and I will continue to read the novel for decades to come.