March 10, 2006

Paternal Pugilists, Boxing Brothers

Australia is bringing us a slew of writers who introduce a whole new kind of teen to American YA fiction. On the bare edge of the working class, these teens hover on the verge of adulthood, seeming harder and more independent than American teens, sometimes even while living at home. They seem to have loads of attitude, loads of friends, access to loads of beer, and a deep and fierce affection for their own little tribes.

Fighting Ruben Wolfe, by Markus Zusak, is a novel about the Wolfe tribe, a family of six just barely making it. Since Dad's accident, he's been out of work for almost five months, and morose -- a midlife crisis of confidence that's threatening to land the family in the street. Mom's working herself into the ground doing two jobs, and Sarah's working too, only she's coming home drunk more and more often, and getting a name for herself around town. Dad's quiet desperation is reaching a fever pitch - he's just about to sign up for the dole. He won't let the oldest son, Steve -- the family's perpetually clean 'white sheep' help out. Steve is working hard, moving up -- and moving out. Losing him, slowly losing Sarah, the Wolfes aren't the tribe they used to be. Ruben and Cameron, the youngest of the family, are watching their family losing the fight. With only pride and loyalty to bind them together, they're hard on each other - and outsiders. When Ruben bloodies a classmate for calling his sister a whore, the brothers find their way into a whole new fight for respect -- boxing.

With realistic detail and some of the most compelling, thoughtful, funny and sweet 'lights-out' sibling dialogue I've read, the brothers develop onto the page: the scummy fight promoter, their battered fellow boxers, the echoing warehouses where the fights are held, the pain of busted lips and bruised cheekbones layered onto the fear of losing. The empty-headed girls surging toward the winners to shower them with adulation and offers of something more proves that the world around the Wolfe boys is larger -- and seedier -- than they ever knew. Cameron and Ruben want something -- but it's not just money anymore, and for Ruben, it's not even just willing females. Fighting everything at once - within and without - the brothers have to face and fight their own personal foes. When the last punch is thrown, they are never again the same.

No comments: