James Kennedy's onstage at the Hideout, wearing a pink jumpsuit and a feather-collared, transparent lab coat. His shock of blond hair flops around as he bounces up and down, playing bass in the "glam-psychedelic-new wave" band Brilliant Pebbles. The show is a release party, but not for a CD or a seven-inch: tonight the band is celebrating the publication of Kennedy's debut novel, a young adult fantasy called The Order of Odd-Fish.
"Brilliant Pebbles is musically close to what I like to do in terms of writing," Kennedy says. "Flashy costumes, crashing and banging, song structures that are not A-B-A-B. It's unpredictable."
The Order of Odd-Fish follows 13-year-old Jo Larouche and her adoptive aunt, Lily, from their "ruby palace" in the California desert to the tropical metropolis of Eldritch City, teeming with arcane festivals and foppish talking bugs. Going incognito to conceal a dark secret, Jo is initiated into the Odd-Fish, a lodge of knights who ride flying ostriches, and becomes Lily's squire. Each knight specializes in a category of useless knowledge, such as unlikely instruments, unusual smells, or discredited metaphysics.
Kennedy knows a thing or two about useless knowledge. Studying physics at Notre Dame in the early 1990s, he pored over the university's "treasure trove of books by cranks—dogged electrical engineers and exasperated philosophers who were convinced that relativity can't be true," he says. A professor told Kennedy that when he becomes a millionaire he should start a library of useless knowledge. "That's the Order of Odd-Fish," he says.
After college Kennedy volunteered as a science teacher at a junior high in Washington, D.C., living with an elderly nun and an Ethiopian refugee in a decrepit convent that inspired the Odd-Fish lodge. He spent a year in Tokyo as an English teacher and translator, lived in Chicago from 2000 to 2004, spent another two years in Japan's ancient capital Nara (competing in the Naked Man Festival, which involves racing through the streets wearing nothing but a loincloth in the middle of winter), and then returned to Chicago in '06.
The Order of Odd-Fish racked up more than 100 rejection slips from agents, but Kennedy turned down the first offer he got from a publisher when he was told he'd have to cut the 400-page book by half. He ultimately landed a deal with Random House's Delacorte Press to publish it unabridged. The first run of 25,000 was printed in August. Kennedy's favorite reader reaction so far has come from "DarkshireWarlock," a poster on DeviantArt.com who describes designing cosplay (or "costume play") getups based on the 144,444 gods of Eldritch City. Her first costume: Aznath, the Silver Kitten of Deceit, in whose form Jo fights the book's climactic duel.
There's darkness buried beneath The Order of Odd-Fish's whimsical detail, in the apocalyptic prophecy Jo unravels that has her destined to bring about the destruction of Eldritch City, and in her loneliness: she's an outsider, sure she'll be roundly hated—or worse—if she discloses her true self. Kennedy hopes these elements will give readers of all ages new layers to explore. "You want to find yourself in that charmed circle of books that are reread," he says—to have people say, "'I can't believe I read this as a kid.'"
For Kennedy, authors in that charmed circle include Roald Dahl, Madeleine L'Engle, and Douglas Adams, and early on they inspired in him the desire to write his own stories. He left a time capsule in his grandparents' Detroit attic when he was eight; opening it up later, the grandparents found a jar containing decomposed meat and a slip of paper that read, "Are you a writer yet?"
Now a married computer programmer with a baby on the way, Kennedy is five chapters into his second book, The Magnificent Moots, a sci-fi comedy he describes as "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy meets Ender's Game meets The Royal Tenenbaums meets A Wrinkle in Time." But the competition in his subgenre has never been stiffer. "Since Harry Potter the market has been flooded" with young adult fantasy, he says. "I don't know if I'm doing the equivalent of having a Silicon Valley startup in 2000."v
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THE ORDER OF ODD-FISHJames KennedyDelacorte Press, $15.99