I am sorry that Teddy Steinkellner was dumped in a trashcan in middle school. Truly I am. Nobody deserves to be humiliated like that, and I hope the boys who did it look back on that episode and feel gut-wrenching, ball-twisting shame. I hope they grow up and have children and experience the fear that some little pack of fourteen-year-old pricks is going to do something like that to one of their kids.
And I have to praise a book about middle school that gives us an episode of upside-down in a garbage can. The clarity of the prose, the observational exactness as the garbage juice trickles into the boy's hair - it is necessary to hear this. If it happened, and especially if it is likely to happen again, we need to know what it is like. It's a little like climbing Everest - if a person has been there, they owe it to the rest of us to tell us what it's like.
In Trash Can Days, his first novel, Teddy Steinkellner absolutely excels at showing us what certain things are like. His two main characters - Jake Schwartz the late bloomer and his older sister Hannah the top cat - are amazingly real, almost hyperreal, as they struggle and slide through a year of junior high school.
Jake is starting seventh grade as the book begins: such a bad time for many people, and for Jake even more so as his best friend Danny, who has achieved a growth spurt and some physical competence, begins to pull away from him. Jake's bouts of self-delusion and insensitivity flow from motivation to consequence as naturally as a river. And after enduring an episode of slut-shaming, Hannah is feeling rather persecuted too, and overreacts like Zeus - she goes online to hurl funny, awful thunderbolts of criticism at the other kids in her social set.
On his own blog, Steinkellner is frank about the fact that Jake is more or less him. Like Steinkellner and his own sisters, Hannah and Jake are the privileged children of a Hollywood producer (How privileged is Jake? Tom Cruise comes to his bar mitzvah. How privileged is Teddy? His dad was the producer of Cheers.). And I think if Teddy Steinkellner had written a book about Jake and Hannah Schwartz, he would have written a marvelous book.
But then there's Danny.
Danny Uribe is the son of the Schwartzes' live-in housekeeper and her husband, the gardener. As Jake's best friend, Danny has grown up at the Schwartz mansion, gone on swanky vacations with Jake's family, attended the same tony little elementary school as Jake and Hannah.
As they move up to junior high, Danny has hit puberty, Jake hasn't. Danny reconnects with his super-Latino cousins from the bad side of town who also go to the new school, he becomes conflicted about his friendship with Jake, and then quite suddenly Danny turns into this resentful gangbanger.
Which, you know, I could actually understand. Danny's upbringing - visiting the big house but living in servants' quarters, essentially being paid company for Jake, partaking of the childish pleasures that money can buy but gradually becoming aware that the future guaranteed for Jake is in no way promised to him - could easily lead to serious, murderous resentment. It's right out of Dickens, for Christ's sake. But I'm not sure the book gets this. If it does, it is very subtle about it.
The thing is - Danny becomes an ugly stereotype, which he kind of has every right to do, but the book will not acknowlege that right. When Danny says, "they don't teach the Mexicans at this school nothin," there is no indication that this might be Danny parroting his cousins because he doesn't think he knows how to be Mexican. There certainly is no whisper of maybe they DON'T teach the Mexicans nothin at that school. I don't know about Los Angeles, but it is not unheard of in other districts. Instead, there is a palpable sense that Danny is making excuses for previous or forthcoming bad behavior - and maybe he is, he is 14 for Christ's sake - but he does not get the same leeway Jake and Hannah get when they make excuses.
In the end, Jake gets stabbed by a member of Danny's gang, which frankly has got to be the only thing that could possibly give him a social life at that school; Hannah reforms her unbelievably hateful bitchy ways - and I mean seriously, Hannah indulges in behavior which I know for a fact would get her suspended from most schools; and I think Danny goes to juvie.
I was agog. Everybody gets redemption except Danny. And truly, Danny acted like a terrible dick, - one of the great things about this book is that almost everybody acts like a terrible dick - but there was no reason given for him to have so suddenly lost his mind and decency. Except that... he wants to fit in with his cousins? Wait - that means that he has to... because they...? DON'T you do that, Teddy Steinkellner. DON'T you imply that low-income Mexican-American teens in L.A. are, what? naturally violent, misogynistic, and totally lacking in empathy? Or... it's their culture?
Trash Can Days is so artfully written that there's no one passage I can quote where we see the white kids getting off the hook and the brown kid punished. Although when Hannah's dad outrageously talks the principal out of punishing Hannah for her horrendous blog - basically by twinkling patronizingly at him - this passes without comment.
Here's how this goes: that scene doesn't get written except to demonstrate the power and privilege of this family, and I don't think that anyone in their right mind would think that Hannah didn't deserve punishment, but this is a book for teens, so somebody in this book ought to demonstrate outrage, or disbelief, or something, about Hannah's special treatment. And while naturally Hannah is going to have a skewed perspective on this scene, the book has multiple narrators specifically so that they can fill in the blanks on each other's multiple blind spots - nobody is as oblivious as a 14 year old. So when nobody does... I wonder if this means that Teddy Steinkellner thinks that Dad's bullying of the principal is funny. Because it's not.
ALSO. There's a community-building picnic at the end of the book in response to Jake's stabbing. Fine. But all through the book there have been references to a thirteen-year-old named Angel who got murdered the previous year for being a spy for a rival gang, and nobody had a picnic in the park and swore to End This Senseless Violence when poor Angel got it in the neck.
I think that's it. I think that if I noticed that we didn't have a community building picnic for Angel, the book better notice, too. It makes it hard to not think that there is an unaware subtext in this book that the white kids are of greater value than the brown kids. "Danny had his chance," the book seems to say. "He started out a decent human being, but he threw that away to be like those worthless cousins of his."
And what I think the book doesn't get is that Danny didn't really ever have a chance. Jake and Hannah are going to turn out fine, no matter how persecuted Jake was or how cruelly Hannah behaved in middle school. They're going to go to Stanford and have blogs and work in publishing or advertising or whatever, and none of that is necessarily going to happen for Danny. Certainly none of it is going to happen for his buddy Guillermo. God, don't get me started on Guillermo. Or Luz and "Chicle," the treacherous Mexican girls. Look at the sketches Teddy's sister did of his characters. White kids smiling, brown kids scowling.
The last things I have to say about this book, and now I'm exhausted - I hate getting all self-righteous, it's really not a good look for me, and it feels like a wobbly limb to go out on, especially with a book that is otherwise so very strong - so I'm just going to do bullet points:
- There is a fourth narrator, Dorothy, who is exactly like at least one kid that I know. She may be on the autism spectrum, exhibiting some characteristics we associate with Asperger's. BUT this does not entirely remove Dorothy from the social matrix. Specifically, she is allowed a romantic life, which is excellent. More and more kids with spectrum disabilities are showing up in children's and teen literature, but people seem uncomfortable trying to write what love or lust might be like for these kids. Thank you, Teddy.
- Much of this book is told in blog entries, IM exchanges, letters, etc. The mixed-media approach is a good one for this age group, and is yet another thing that Steinkellner does well.
- The book is super, super funny. Oh how I wanted to love this book long time, just because it was so funny while it was letting these kids be their terrible, awful selves.
If you haven't already, read Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la Peña. Same kid, better perspective. Emphasis where it belongs.
Trash Can Days publishes in August.