A Key to Treehouse Living is the adventure of William Tyce, a boy without parents, who grows up near a river in the rural Midwest. In a glossary-style list, he imparts his particular wisdom on subjects ranging from ASPHALT PATHS, BETTA FISH, and MULLET to MORTAL BETRAYAL, NIHILISM, and REVELATION.
Why do we make lists? To remember to get Drano or to get Uncle Al a holiday present, for sure, but A Key to Treehouse Living suggests that lists don’t just help us organize our lives. They help us make sense of them ... Elliot Reed’s first novel is presented as if it were an alphabetical, autobiographical glossary, with entries that range from a paragraph to a couple of pages on topics such as Journey Into Deep Space and Podunk Town ... There are many more ominous notes in Reed’s elliptical novel. While supposedly writing about frogs or skipping stones, Tyce makes frequent references to exploited or abandoned children, lawbreaking and betrayal. Gradually, we begin to piece together the story of an unwanted, un-self-pitying child who figured out how to raise himself because nobody else wanted the job. The occasional brush with authorities aside, he has done an improbably good job of it.
The book, not quite a dictionary, is a compendium of observations by reluctant narrator, William Tyce, that takes readers alphabetically from 'Absence' to 'Yonder'. After reading the first few entries, you might turn to the cover to confirm that you are in fact reading a novel. It feels at first as if you’ve found yourself in the middle of Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. Or that you’re reading a series of footnotes by David Foster Wallace, strung together to form a narrative. You’re compelled to ask, Where’s the story? But the voice is whimsical and engaging, so you plod ahead and soon catch on: the narrator, a young boy, orphaned, a novice to the world, is awash with wonder ... Ultimately, the book is about the journey of a vulnerable young man, searching for home, for family, for connection. A young man who has to rely almost entirely on his own perceptions and convictions. A young man open to possibilities, who will open your own world.
Reed deftly advances [protagonist] William’s story ... William’s voice is appealingly and alternately streetwise, poetic, comic, melancholy, and confused ... Through its deceptively simple structure, A Key to Treehouse Living creates a portrait of a compelling, perceptive adolescent who keeps slipping through society’s cracks, either due to circumstances or of his own volition. By the novel’s end, William is still troubled and at risk, but with the hope that perhaps his curious resilience will help him keep adding to the glossary of his distinctive alphabet.