Short. Raucous. Undiluted. Pungent. Sneaky. Foulmouthed. Bright.
These words describe one of two things - your favorite uncle or James Proimos's first book for young adults.
Short: It's short, no doubt about it. 121 pages. On the first one we meet Hercules Martino, opening a jar of pickles at the age of six. On the second, his dad has died, and on the third, we find out that Herc thought his dad was an ass.
Raucous: If there were a soundtrack to this book it would be packed with holler-it-out 80's guitar rock like Blackfoot (I'm thinking Highway Song, and good god there's a nine-minute live version of that thing on YouTube that just melted my brain) and joyfully twisted 80's-inspired 90's guitar rock like Son Of A Disgruntled Ex-Postal Worker by Alice Donut, with guest appearances by NOFX, the Beastie Boys, and The Kills. Maybe a little Japanese ska for when he's running from the dogs. Emo this kid is not.
Uncle Ben, giving Peter Parker the hard line about "great responsibility." Killjoy.
Undiluted: When you've got only 121 pages to deal with grief, resentment, infatuation, sex, getting dumped, love at first sight, and male bonding, you better make every line count, and James Proimos does. I'm not sure how he does it, because he doesn't rely on that elliptical, poet-y thing of allowing broken phrases or just single words to tell you what is going on (ahem, nobody I know would try to do that, no sir). He still shows instead of tells.
James Proimos spends a lot of time writing picture books, but I don't think that's why this book is so short. Or maybe it is. Maybe he's used to not using two sentences where one will do. Maybe he's used to auditioning sentence after sentence, dismissing them all until he finds the one that advances the plot while providing description, tone, and insight into the character, and delivers all that with a sense of humor - and makes you feel it at the same time.
Pungent: Not only because, like his namesake, Herc has to clean out a stable, or because he has to get uncomfortably handsy with an odiferous street guy, or because he encounters a pack of feral dogs and in doing so manages to find the best pizza in Baltimore (and it turns out not to have anything to do with the actual pies, which makes sense, because pizza in Baltimore is uniformly terrible) (except for Matthew's, my husband reminds me), but because Herc's emotions, no matter how he wants to muffle them with sleep, come through strong and sharp, in bitter memories of his father's competitiveness or disdain, or in moments of longing or pain.
Sneaky: It's sneaky to slide emotions like regret and sorrow into a book this fun. It's sneaky to establish your boy's credibility by letting him get chased by dogs and bit on the butt on one day, and then test it by parking him on a bench to read Winnie the Pooh the next. He's doing it for a girl, but that doesn't make that book any less read.
It's also sneaky to snag a well-known classic story - in this case, the twelve labors of Hercules - for your suffering hero to inhabit. In Going Bovine, Libba Bray put her encephalitic main character into the deluded story of Don Quixote. Any number of teen books - Punkzilla, for instance - are built upon an Odyssey structure. Borrowing an iconic structure like this gives a story a slight shift into is-this-really-happening, which is how it feels to be a teenager half the time anyway. It also allows the plot to be ever so slightly epic, and allows the hero his pain. How can it be wimpy to be homesick if even wily Odysseus is homesick?
Foulmouthed: You need an explanation for foulmouthed? Come on over my house when I'm trying to bake something and you'll get any explanation you need.
Bright: Smart. Sarcastic. Witty. That's what I mean by bright. But also bright as in when I imagine the scenes in this book, the sun is always shining. Despite Herc's sorrowful circumstances, and the emotional load he is carrying - and despite the somewhat misleading title - this book is the opposite of dark. It is funny and hopeful and I think lots of people will enjoy it.
My only - very minor - beef with this book is that title. Combined with cover art depicting a teenage boy flat on his back, I absolutely expected something harsher, something more like You or Violence 101. I was relieved to be charmed instead of appalled, but I do think the cover and title, while memorable, do the book a disservice.
and Publishers Weekly gave it a star.