When I was a younger reader, I avoided stories about boys. A friend of mine sought them out because the boys had all the best adventures and the girls were always learning how to be ‘good’; I kept reading stories about girls in search of the ones who were ‘bad’ and managed to not get caught.
If stories like these, penned by John Michel Cummings, Meg Rosoff, and John Green has existed when I was a younger reader, I might have gotten to know a few boys better. On the page, at least.
Meet Jason Stevens. It’s the 1970’s, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and he’s aiming to grow up.
John Michael Cummings’ Ugly to Start With offers a series of glimpses of Jason’s life, scenes which can be sharp or poignant, or both.
The contrasting emotions that these tales provoke are appropriate; what’s messier, what’s more contradictory, than adolescence. With the world both too-small and too-big at the same time.
This is captured perfectly in the first tale, “The World Around Us”.
In this story, Jason is still young enough to measure time in TV shows.
He is arguing with his mother about the length of time that it takes to drive from one town to another, but it’s clear that he is not old enough to have made any of the drives himself (only as a passenger).
But he is old enough to want to be able to offer Ernesto a ride home when he spots him walking along the shoulder of the road as his mother drives past.
While his mother debates whether this is a wise move, Jason tells her to back up the car, along the shoulder, so that the man does not need to walk so far in the wind to catch up.
He is old enough to make demands, but he is not old enough to command that they be respected; his mother refuses to concede to this second demand, and only turns to look at Ernesto once he has climbed into the back seat.
Ernesto is “the new artist in Harper’s Ferry”. The dynamic in the car reveals that many of the people who call Harper’s Ferry home are not accustomed to looking far beyond its borders, either literally or figuratively.
They are used to people (i.e. tourists, mostly) visiting them, but most of them seem more comfortable looking inward rather than outward.
Jason’s dad — one of the most significant characters in the collection — has a distinct set of rules about his house, some spoken openly, some quietly negotiated.
“Dad might have been the orneriest man on earth, but I had to wonder why he didn’t let people in the house all the time.” (from “Two Tunes”)
Most of the boundaries in the stories are understood rather than declared; much of the tension surrounds those boundaries being crossed.
“None of us had seen a brand-new barbed wire before. They pulled on the strands to test their tautness. They were like guitar strings, Greg said. (from “The Fence”)
The strands in the fence being compared to guitar strings also subtly pulls the reader back to the earlier story “Two Tunes” but even more important to this story is the fence itself — and what exists on either side of it.
That fence is in mountain country. Picture the setting of “The Waltons”, a show Jason’s dad likes because it takes place nearby.
“Actually it took place about two hours away by car, over in Virginia. But close enough for Dad. Mountain, he always said, was mountain.”
(Jason still compares parts of his life to television, but the scope of his experience is widening; he’s beginning to understand, more and more, the gap that exists between the way his dad views the world and the way that he, himself, views it. He is starting to negotiate his own truths.)
“And just like that, nothing else would be said about it. I would sit in this car for another hour in curiosity, then in my room half the evening, wondering what kind of father I had.” (from “Generations”)
Some of the most significant developments in this collection transpire in silence, in what is not said.
“He lit another cigarette, and the flick of his lighter was a kind of signal to begin something new. He was patient as he looked at me, puffed, but said nothing.” (from “Carter”)
Often the stories are as much about what does not happen as what does happen (in fact, I prefer the stories in which this is the case). Throughout, the prose is clean, and the dialogue is credible, whether the bulk of the story’s drama is internal or external.
The collection’s theme-work is so subtly layered that a story like the first one really can be read simply as a mother and son stopping on the highway to give a man a ride. Or it can be read as an exercise in the awkward push-pull between parent and adolescent progeny, or the tension between the familiar and the unknown. The reader can negotiate their own balance between the outward and inward perspective.
Unlike most of the residents of Harpers Ferry, Jason looks outward as often as he looks inward, but the narrator of Meg Rosoff’s What I Was has his gaze focussed on the horizon. He desperately wants out.
He’s been asked to leave two boarding schools and, now, he is wondering how he can get out of St. Oswold’s, whose standards seem so low that he might not find a way to fall short.
It’s hard to believe because, to the reader, the narrator is quite charming. Though, to hear him tell it, he’s not much to look at.
“I will tell you that I’m not one of those heroes who attracts admiration for his physical attributes. Picture a boy, small for his age, ears stuck at right angles to his head, hair the texture of straw and the color of mouse. Mouth: tight. Eyes: wary, alert.”
And St. Oswold’s isn’t anything fancy either.
It “uncannily resembled a prison”, the weight of the 19th century settling around his shoulders “like a shroud”, the rooms “dark all year round, freezing in the winter, cramped and airless in summer”.
But no matter. Our narrator is sneaking off from “conditioning”, a long run on the East Anglian coastline, ducking into the reeds for rest and relief, when he meets Finn.
Finn “looked impossibly familiar, like a fantasy version of myself, with the face I had always hoped would look back at me from a mirror”.
The hut that Finn lives in feels “warm and comforting as soup”.
Compared to the dormitories and his parents’ home, it “was as if I had fallen through a small tear in the universe, down the rabbit hole, into some idealized version of This Boy’s Life”.
And, so, Finn — and Finn’s life — is irresistible.
“As it was, nothing happened except the two of us watching the sea come in and go out again, listening to the birds, sheltering from the rain when it came, and lying silent as the sky changed from blue to white to gold. For hours we lay side by side, breathing softly together, watching thin rivulets of water run down the cliffs and into the sea, feeling the world slowly revolve around us as we leaned into each other for warmth — and for something else, something I couldn’t quite name, something glorious, frightening, and unforgettable.”
History of early Britain, boarding school life, home in a fishing hut, undersea settlements,cliffside caves, cups of tea
“The truth is, for that brief period of my life I failed to exist if Finn wasn’t looking at me.”
“A cooking pot, a place to sleep, a friend, a fire — what more did I require?”
John Green’s Looking for Alaska
Like the narrator of What I Was, the narrator of Looking for Alaska, Miles “Pudge” Halter, is new in town.
More accurately, he’s new to Culver Creek Preparatory School, which is 15 miles south of Birmingham, Alabama.
He shares Room 43 with Chip Martin, whose talent is being able to memorize things (currently capital cities, the not-so-obvious ones).
Miles’ talent is memorizing too, but very specifically the last words spoken by people before they die.
He’s at that age, where mortality seems so deliciously impossible that it takes on an irresistible allure.
“It was an indulgence. Other people had chocolate; I had dying declarations.”
His obsession with “last words” seems to place the moment on a pedestal, but the novel is far more about encompassing experience than focusing on individual moments.
Miles likes to read biographies; as much as he seems to be concentrating on dying, he is most concerned with how to live, with the string of moments that comprises a life.
“What the hell is instant? Nothing is instant. Instant rice takes five minutes, instant pudding an hour. I doubt that an instant of blinding pain feels particularly instantaneous.”
There is a certain intensity to the second half of the book which is directly connected to a plot spoiler but, even so, the tone of the passage above is not limited to the latter half.
It’s in place whether the subject at hand is a world religions class, the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, or whether oatmeal cream pies are nutritious.
“You’ve got your oats. You’ve got your meal. You’ve got your cream. It’s a fuckin’ food pyramid.”
Not every reader will respond to the sharp and somewhat-angsty tone of Looking for Alaska, but John Green‘s novel won the 1996 Michael L. Printz Award and readers tend to triumph not just one of his titles but many. If I had discovered them as a teenager, I’m sure that I’d have re-read them to bits, even the ones about boys.
What was the last boy’s coming-of-age tale that you read? Did you enjoy it?
PS Looking for more about John Michael Cummings’ Ugly to Start With? Here is an excerpt from the collection.