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Remember when you were ten or so, and a mouth full of braces and mom's special haircut were completely ruining your life? We do. We would have given anything to be as cool as Maniac. He can catch a touchdown pass one handed. Solve Cobble's Knot. Race a train running on one rail. Get Hester and Lester to stop drawing on the walls. Maniac is the be-all, end-all, the kid every other kid wants to be and every parent wants to raise (well, almost).
But is it really as simple as his ability to do things that others can't? Is that what makes him so cool?
That's part of it, but it's definitely not the whole story.
Maniac is cool, not just cool, but cool because he does these things with confidence and panache. Remember when he rescues Arnold Jones from Finsterwald's? The high-schoolers do: "As the stupefied high-schoolers were leaving the scene, they looked back. They saw the kid, cool times ten, stretch out on the forbidden steps and open his book to read" (5.19).
Okay, so he's confident. But another way of seeing this is that Manic just does. not. care. He doesn't care what his peers think; he doesn't care what adults think. He's guided by his own moral compass. If he thinks something is right, he does it—like walk into the black part of town, or rescue a frightened 10-year-old, or live with a bunch of ugly racists to make sure a couple of kids go to school.
And that makes him pretty stinkin' cool.
Wait, how does a kid just not go to school? Aren't there truant officers and registrars keeping track of you?
Well, not Maniac. Maniac has no family and no address, and without those two things he might as well not exist. At least, that's how he sees it. Maniac loves to learn, but he doesn't go to school because he believes that school won't work unless he has a real home to go to when it's done. He knows that if he were to go to school before he has a real home, it just wouldn't work:
The other kids would be heading for their homes, their night homes, each of them, hundreds, flocking from school like birds from a tree, scattering across town, each breaking off to his or her own place, each knowing exactly where to land. School. Home. No, he was not going to have one without the other. (23.21)
This decision has wide-reaching effects on how he lives his life. He never has anyplace he has to be, he just has places he wants or doesn't want to be. He also doesn't really have people telling him what he has to do, because as soon as they say something he doesn't like, he's hit the ground running.
So, how would Maniac's journey have been different though if he had decided to tough out school? Plenty of other homeless kids do it. Would it have provided the structure he was so desperately looking for, even without an address to go home to at night?
Yep, he runs. A lot. Turns out when you don't go to school and no one's checking up on you, you have a lot of freedom. So he runs. And runs. And then runs some more. He runs across town. He runs across the state. He races people. He races trains.
You get the picture, right? He runs. A lot. But why?
Well, the opposite of moving is staying still, and for much of the book Maniac is looking for a safe place to stay still in. It takes him awhile to find it, too. He can't stay at the Beales because he worries about their safety. He can't stay with Grayson because Grayson dies. He doesn't really want to stay with the McNabs because it's a dirty, scary place to live. So in between his trial runs at having a home, he runs runs runs.
But did Maniac really have to run all those times? We're not talking about the McNabs, because we would have hightailed it out of there the second we had to step over the dog poop. But the Beales? Did Maniac really have to leave them? Maybe never having been part of a real family means that he just didn't know that, no matter what, families stick together.
By the end, running turns out to be something that helps him make connections. When frenemy Mars Bar becomes his running partner, Maniac seems to realize that running doesn't have to be about getting away. He doesn't have to run alone anymore.
Ok, so it wasn't a bull. But it does rhyme. And what this rhyme doesn't tell us is that he kisses the baby buffalo cause he knows it won't hurt him. In fact, he and Baby B are really BFFs of a sort. He even has a Christmas morning visit with him: "Baby came trotting on over, and the two of them had a warm reunion" (31.7).
The buffalo shed provides a safe place for Maniac to stay and scrounge some food, when both places to stay and food are in short supply. Maniac's willingness to get up close and personal with a soon to be giant furry creature is another example of his ability to go places, do things and make relationships with people that others wouldn't even dare to think of. Maniac is brave. Not because he kisses the Baby Bison, but because he was willing to form a relationship with him in the first place.
Did it really need to take Maniac so long to find his family? Wouldn't he have saved himself a lot of heartache if he'd just stayed with the Beales?
Not quite. Yeah, Maniac runs a tough road. But each hard, scary, and exciting situation he faces and walks (runs) away from brings him something. And this is most true with the people he meets. Is Amanda a better person for having Maniac take over her room? (Here's a hint—think of her attitude towards the adorable Hester and Lester before and after she meets Maniac). What about Grayson—how does meeting, and adopting, Maniac improve his life?
As much as the people Maniac meets benefit from knowing him, Maniac doesn't come away empty-handed either. Each family that Maniac tries out teaches him something about how or how not (McNabs, we're looking at you!) to be a family and take care of each other. He learns cooperation and unconditional love from the Beales, perseverance and strength of spirit from Grayson, and how not to be filthy and racist from the McNabs. So was being homeless for two years worth it after all?