December 11, 2006

Atypical Band Geek

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Frank Portman is in a band - which really tells you all you need to know about his cool quotient. He's created a guy who has a deeply interesting theory about Holden Caufield as a cult figure beloved by AP English teachers everywhere, and then he's sort of recreated the character into a cultist figure himself: a socially skill-less, disaffected, eccentric, awkward, uber intelligent every guy, who believes that high school is the "penalty for crimes yet unspecified." The novel is far more than the eclectic sum of its parts -- it is quite funny -- funnier than it ought to be, by turns wise and innocent and a wryly honest look back at high school for the fringe folk.

High school: a place that is by turns a landfill of ennui, and a deadly concentration of violence, humiliation and random doses of shame. People who don't even know you can be out to get you, especially the jocks, who bloodletting to let off steam, and the popular girls, who come up with several mean games of Makeout/Fakeout, and the Dud/e Chart to further humiliate their already socially zeroed counterparts. From masochistic vice principals to boring classes with teachers who mispronounce vocabulary words, to thugs who do violence in bathrooms, Hillmont High School seems like a badly run psychotics association. However, our dorky protagonist, Tom Henderson, assures us it all goes better if you're in a band. It doesn't matter if you're King Dork, a complete loser in the social landscape of high school, bands are cool. They attract hot to semi-hot girls and the possibility of random acts of amorousness. They make you seem smarter than you are. In short, probably everyone should be in a band, if they can find a decent drummer. It's how Tom stays sane. (Well, as sane as a guy whose nickname is Child Molester can be, anyway.)

While Tom tries to stay alive and avoid Catcher in the Rye, he's also trying to maneuver the shoals of living at home with his hippie-geek stepfather, his angry little sister, and his vague, grieved semi-hippie mother. Mostly Tom wants to be left alone to get into his music, but he's not a bad family member -- he goes so far as to do his best not to mock his goofy stepdad, and to give his Mom a break, even though most of the time they're clueless and completely intrusive and nutty, to boot. And then there's the lies his mother has told he and his sister -- lies about the way their father died. There's something to this lie, and here Portman introduces a deep, darker and scarier subplot that is all the more odd because the the spooky coincidences and connections brought up by Tom's only friend, Sam.

No one has ever explained what happened: Tom's father was a policeman, he was parked by the side of the road and struck by a car? He committed suicide? Tom tries to figure it out, with the most roundabout assistance possible: a series of cryptic clues in the back of a book his father owned. Ironically, one of the books is a battered copy of Catcher, which Tom starts carrying around -- just like the other Caufield cultists. He wants a connection to his father. He wants a connection to the world in which he's floating. He wants... to mess around with a girl. Or two. On opposite days of the week. He gets all of that, an far more than he bargained for.

The vocabulary, disparate plot strands and braniac voice in this novel will endear this novel to older readers; the myriad band names and philosophizing on punk vs. Goth vs. rock may charm others. An interesting first novel; writers and band types alike can't wait for more.

1 comment:

a. fortis said...

So it turned out to be a good one, eh? I'll have to check it out...