A Dose of Reality
Since Judy Blume gave teens Forever... realistic young adult novels have been perennially popular. (Vampires don't stand a chance against Katherine and Michael's emotional roller coaster.) Blake Nelson tapped into Blume's legacy in a big way when he burst onto the literary scene (via Sassy magazine no less), with his novel Girl, in 1994. This tale of bored middle class Portland suburbanite teen Andrea, who thrift-shops and clubs her way through high school in a desperate attempt to find enlightenment in her otherwise average existence, blew wide open universal feelings of frustration. Andrea's search for meaning in Girl, her insistence that there must be something more to life then what she sees around her (while having no clue what that something more could be), leads her in the final pages to a college escape in Connecticut and a cliffhanger-ish ending. Readers hope Andrea finds herself in some hallowed halls of learning, but just don't know if she has it in her, or, more pointedly, if she is any more prepared to get herself together than most of the rest of us are at eighteen.
Fortunately for his fans, after an interminable wait, Nelson returns to Andrea's world in the recent Dream School. Written in a familiar fast-paced vein, it chronicles her arrival at Wellington College, which she expects will provide her with a classic "J. Crew/college catalog" experience. Everything Andrea experienced in high school, everything she was taught and told, has led her to believe that at Wellington her life will come together. This is where it should all start to make sense. But what she finds is just more confusion and the stark realization that for a lot of teens, college is another place to get lost. Andrea keeps hoping she will find people to connect with -- a sentiment remarkably evocative of her high school self, and while this time it's not the music scene that draws her in, she still is the same girl, seeking meaning in dorm friendships, hot guys, and of course, some readily available recreational drugs. This is Buffy, season four but a hell of a lot hipper in language and setting, and without the supportive Scoobies. That search for like-minds who "get it" is, in fact, what drives Andrea as she reaches out further and further from her comfort zone. That she ends up over her head should not surprise readers of Girl, but the journey has always been the destination with Andrea, and again Nelson slams one out of the coming-of-age ballpark. Andrea's life is messy, her vision of the future an angsty source of confusion, and Dream School is another critical step in the path to growing up that all of us, if we are honest, will recognize and embrace as the real deal.
The search for direction is a sentiment that twenty-year-old Nate in Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality by Bill Peters also understands all too well. Depressed and quietly desperate in fading 1990s Rochester, New York (home of Eastman Kodak), Nate has no idea what he should do or, like college girl Andrea, what he wants to do. In narrative language peppered with slang that is metaphor-heavy with the regional meaning and memory he clings to, Nate drives aimlessly around Rochester, hangs out, and slowly gets sucked into a boredom-fused paranoid suspicion of his friend "Necro" that involves a conspiracy of white supremacy, arson, and a possible threat in the boonies from a sniper. Paranoia plays an epic role in this novel, because, well, it beats having nothing to do. That in the midst of all this, Nate also works on an "enjoyment list," tries to find a dead-end job that will make his mother-landlord happy, and starts dating a girl from high school, is multitasking any slacker would appreciate. (Andrea, who spent her time back home at the mall or the local yogurt hut is exactly the kind of girl who wouldn't give Nate the time of day and yet -- heavy irony here -- she has been leading basically the same life, just a few rungs up the social ladder. We are truly more alike then we imagine.)
Nate doesn't even have the promise of college to hold on to and, stuck without the illusion of a plan, just wants out of the pointless situation he is in. If that means believing his oldest friend is a local terrorist wannabe, well then a guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do, and he jumps onboard a truly madcap plan along with some equally disillusioned friends and heads off to the crazytown races. In this case, that includes when they turn over their evidence to the local cops and watch things get even more out of hand.
Maverick Jetpants is not a thriller, or a detective novel, or even a slight mystery, but a perfect example of how young men with nothing to do will always find something to fill their days with, regardless of how ill thought out that thing might be. Peters has done something just this side of insane with this book; he's created a character that speaks in a voice everyone will recognize, even while half the words he says allude to things none of us were part of. Just change the setting to a New England mill town, toss out the Buffalo Bills jerseys, put on some Montreal Canadiens gear, and ditch the slang for a lot of French words, and you have my father's teen years. He decided to join the air force at seventeen; after reading Maverick Jetpants, I can see why so many other young men do the same thing. The real tragedy here is those left behind who head for the same restaurant booths every night, look for girls who are equally disillusioned, and spend their nights wondering just what the hell they are supposed to be wanting. Thank God there's a hopeful ending to this book -- even though part of me thinks it's the only thing Peters writes that didn't ring true.
Though both Nelson and Peters allude to somewhat uninterested or preoccupied parents in their novels, Lidia Yuknavitch delivers a lightening bolt of vengeance at a mom and dad in her eviscerating novel of teen pain, Dora: A Headcase. Based on Sigmund Freud's famous case study, Yuknavitch creates an intense narrative around Seattle teen Ida who has been sent by her parents to a local psychiatrist she nicknames Siggy. Ida is out of control, and while she and Siggy verbally duel in the office, the reader quickly learns that her father's friend Mr. K. has been molesting her for years. Her father was too busy sleeping with Mrs. K. and her mother was too busy self-medicating to intervene. Ida is surviving through sheer force of will, the love of her madcap group of equally fucked-up friends, and a lot of pills. While some adults may find her drugs, damage, and outrageous attacks against everyone and everything too much to bear, the reality that bleeds off the page cannot be ignored. Ida is in trouble because her parents didn't notice and that is a hard truth that will resonate with many teen readers. Sometimes your parents really do suck, and every moment of Ida's life is proof of just how that reality can play out, even when you do have a world famous psychiatrist chiming in with his opinions.
I was thinking a lot about Ida when I read Gregory Spatz's Inukshuk, which is about another damaged teen who nearly loses himself before anyone notices. While Yuknavitch shoots with both barrels in Dora, Spatz has a subtler but no less upsetting tale to tell. Fifteen-year-old Thomas Franklin is stuck in a remote northern Canadian town with his newly separated father, John. Neither of them can understand why their family has broken up, and Thomas, in particular, misses his mother who is living some distance away. While John spends his off time writing poetry and thinking about unpacking, Thomas dives wholeheartedly into a graphic novel project about the real and famously doomed nineteenth century Arctic explorer John Franklin. To fully appreciate what happened to Franklin's men, Thomas decides he must suffer as they did, and so, after a brief vague discussion with his college-aged brother, creates a diet guaranteed to induce scurvy. Thomas begins to fade, while his father dismisses his new eating habits as just another annoyance no different from those of a fussy baby or difficult toddler. It is, apparently, always something with Thomas, and just like that, just that easily, John misses the fact that his son is slowly killing himself.
While Yuknavitch peppers her text with exchanges from Freud's interactions with the real "Dora" (who suffered similarly to Ida and was also dismissed as emotional and histrionic), Spatz sends Thomas deep into the world of the lost Franklin expedition. The boy draws the men who disappeared in the North and imagines their conversations as desperation overtook the ice-bound crew. (Driven nearly mad by isolation and hunger, the men resorted to cannibalism in a last ditch attempt to survive.) Thomas, bullied at school, confused by love (with a delightfully original girl), pining for his mother, and distrustful of his father, takes control of the only thing he can -- his physical survival. In this regard, he is much like Ida, running for her life, daring the world to take her down, and finally, terrifyingly, setting her nightmare on fire. One embraces a bang, the other a whimper, but both are dangerously close to seeing the end of the world. They survive -- that's the only spoiler I'll give you here -- but their paths to those final pages are both utterly unforgettable. Dora: A Headcase is a primal scream and Inukshuk a frozen lullaby, but both of them are written for teens left behind. Yuknavitch and Spatz are fearless; turn off the reality TV -- as advised by Chuck Palahniuk's introduction to Dora -- and read these books. I dare you.
Finally, quietly, both Beth Kephart and Tanita Davis mine serious territory in their titles Small Damages and Happy Families. Set in the mid-1990s, Small Damages is the story of recent high school graduate and Yale-bound Kenzie, who finds herself accidentally pregnant and shipped off to Spain. Her mother is set on a path to "take care of things" as quickly and secretively as possible. A family friend offers a quiet place for Kenzie to bide her time until delivery, and an eager local couple stands ready to adopt. It will all be so easy if Kenzie does what she is supposed to do -- be polite, helpful, grateful, and give the baby up before boarding a plane back for the perfect life she left behind. For her friends at home the trip is a mystery; a pile of acceptable lies that perfect boyfriend Kevin happily contributes to. It should all be over soon, just a memory and minor delay in their college-catalog-planned futures. But Kenzie has all the time in the world to think in Spain, and with a cast of characters with their own ideas on life and family, the certainty of going along with the plan becomes less and less sure.
Kephart excels at crafting introspective moments and Small Damages is full of them. She especially nails the deep void between boy and pregnant girl and manages to make Kevin simultaneously sympathetic and callous. Consider the absolute perfection of this passage:
"What are your choices?" he asked.
"When reading Hemingway watch the pronouns," Ms. Peri said. "The pronouns will tell the story. It's I or it's us. It's we or it's them. Stories belong to somebody."
I remembered Ms. Peri in the flash of that moment -- the night sky behind Kevin, the almost-full moon, his arms around me and around you.
"Watch the pronouns" indeed. Could it be any clearer that Kevin has moved past the crisis, if he ever was in it at all? Kephart places the teens miles apart emotionally, and does so beautifully, with this deft and careful use of language. It shows how Kenzie knew even then that this was really all about her; regardless of Kevin's continuing to make all the necessary boyfriend noises at that moment. It was really only ever going to be about her.
Gracefully Kephart steers her protagonist through every emotion, every question and answer, and the conversations she has with her growing group of Spanish friends (notable for their wide range of age and circumstance) only make her journey that much more interesting. The Spanish setting, beautifully described throughout, adds an air of gentleness to the book's passages and makes this elegant title a novel of singular power. There are many books that treat teen pregnancy as a plot point, but Small Damages gives it the attention it deserves, and a character whose happily-ever-after is wonderful to watch unfold.
For Davis the plot hinges on transgender issues and what happens when a so-called happy family is rocked by a parent's sudden revelation of a long-held secret. There are a thousand different ways in which this story could be told wrong, where overwrought emotion or misplaced sympathy could turn it into a potentially salacious afternoon special, but with a deft hand Davis tackles not just the confusion inherent in the topic but the bigger issue of teen frustration over parental decisions. While learning a parent is transgender is difficult enough, what truly rocks twins Ysabel and Justin is the way their parents handle this massive disruption to their lives. As the teens struggle to figure out all that's changed, they must deal with their parents' well-meaning but bullheaded refusal to discuss the issues. Ysabel and Justin each respond to this confusion in a variety of ways, none of which endears them to their mom and dad, but all of which make perfect sense to anyone who has ever had to deal with parents behaving stupidly. (Pause a moment here for all of us to collectively nod and share in their frustration.)
Over the course of one spring break as family counseling is endured, family outings are negotiated, and organized family fun takes place with a TransParent group, (which includes a lot of smart outspoken teenagers), Ysabel and Justin manage to get their parents to get real. It's this focus on the damage to the family that makes Happy Families really succeed -- Davis sees that with all the questions about what transgender means (and those questions are excellently explored), the real core to this novel is that the children were lied to. This is the essence to all of the novels in this column -- in one way or another, the parents have failed their children, and in every instance they have insisted that failure did not take place. While some of them feel very badly -- particularly in Happy Families -- and while some are just complete asses -- see Dora -- the drama of each novel all comes around to the teenagers demanding fair and worthy attention from the people who are supposed to love them most. It doesn't work out for all of these families; some are just too damaged to save, but in each case there are moments of amazing honesty in which the kids realize that they deserve to stand up and be heard; they deserve respect. For Ysabel and Justin, that moment is a good one, a not quite happily-ever-after-one, but at least a moment that shows them the way forward.
COOL READ: Arne Bellstorf reaches back into rock-and-roll history with a story of the early Beatles in the graphic novel Baby's in Black. Music fans are not going to be able to resist this intimate and ultimately heartbreaking look at the very beginning of one of rock's greatest legends. This is the Beatles in 1960s West Germany, when Stuart Sutcliffe played bass and before Ringo joined the band. Hamburg is where the Beatles met photographer Astrid Kirchherr, whose philosophy-loving friends inspired a radical change in their appearance and led to shakeups in the lineup as Sutcliffe fell in love. Giving up on rock-and-roll fame (potential fame, actually, as the group was barely scraping by at this point), Sutcliffe chose Kirchherr and art and left the band to pursue painting. On the cusp of making his mark, he died suddenly, a loss that shook them all, most notably John Lennon.
Baby's in Black was originally published in German with a great deal of input from Astrid Kirchherr. In bringing it to American teens, Bellstorf shows the group as they were then, impossibly young (George was only seventeen!), foolish, and more than a little bit hungry. There's a lot of brashness in this story, and obnoxiousness (especially from John), and no hint of what lies ahead. This makes Baby's in Black both compelling and believable. At its heart is the Beatles story, much more about friendship then anything else.