Fat Vampire by Adam Rex
Adam Rex is astonishingly talented. He's a poet and a painter. He's a writer and a sculptor and a young man carving pumpkins. He's a New World Man. In The True Meaning of Smekday, he was funny in a kind of stop-short-and-read-it-again way - much like I've sometimes wanted to rewind Sesame Street ("Was that a cut at Dr. Laura?" "Is that muppet supposed to be Amanda Palmer?") He managed, in Smekday, to be funny in a way that makes adults laugh without becoming inaccessible to children.
But what really impressed me in that book was his deft description of the evolution of trust and friendship between his two main characters, Tip and J.Lo. (Jeez, just typing those names makes me want to read it again.) The book was, quite surreptitiously, all about their relationship, and yet it was never boring, not squishy, and did not drag. On the contrary, it zipped right along, with many interesting novelties along the way.
That same talent for invisibly stitching intricate character development into a taut plot is put to good use in Fat Vampire, Adam Rex's first novel for teen readers. In it, our boy Adam backs off on the jokes (although, my god, there is still plenty of wake-up-the-husband-and-read-him-a-paragraph funny in here) in favor of a powerful, line-by-line depiction of high school. And I think I am not spoiling anything when I say - OUCH. A typical high school in the Philadelphia suburbs is our setting, and our more-than-typically-isolated teenage protagonists are Sejal, a middle-class exchange student from Calcutta, and Doug, the titular fat vampire.
Who would have gotten a stupid giggle out of "titular." As do we all.
Doug is fifteen forever. Man. For many of us, that is our version of hell - no vampirism necessary. Certainly it is for Doug, the kind of geeky, overweight, self-conscious kid who by necessity is living for the day that he leaves for college. Had been living for it, anyway. Now that he's a vampire, he'll never lose the baby fat, never grow tall. In addition, he is not clear on how to do the cool vampire shit - can't turn into a bat at will, can't turn into a wolf at all, and he is still pretty stoogey when it comes to finding blood. Biting cows and whatnot, when it turns out that the cool vampire at school just finds a girl who's "into it" and is on his merry way.
Sejal is in the U.S. partly to shake an addiction to online social networking that blew up into real-world tragedy. Perhaps not surprisingly, the cultural disconnect that she experiences is easier to bridge than the gulf created by her online life, which she has jettisoned, along with her luggage, at the airport. It is an irony of high school proportions that Sejal's goals, though quite a bit loftier than Doug's - she wants to be good - are infinitely easier to attain.
Adam Rex captures both the soap-bubble sensitivity and the steamroller self-centeredness of teenagers, and conveys it through dialogue and gesture. Actions speak louder than words, and dialogue speaks louder than narrative - witness our introduction to the kids who sit under the tree at lunch:
"Hi," said a girl with long, slender arms. "I'm Ophelia. Cat's probably told you about me."
Ding. We know who Ophelia is.
"The airport lost my bag," said Sejal, "but Cat and I wear the same size."
"That's sad," said Sophie. "About your bag. You probably had all kinds of beautiful kimonos or robes or whatever."
Ding. We know who Sophie is.
Understated, but by no means underwritten. And pulling off "understated" in a novel set in high school, with its intricate social system of checks and balances, unspoken snubs and devastating faux pas... well, that's quite a trick.
Here's another trick: it's a high school vampire novel written for teens that never says the T-word, although if I am not mistaken, it blames Stephenie Meyer. That's ok. I blame Stephenie Meyer too.