Stay with this one. The book, I meant, but now that I've started writing this review and it went jackknifing off the rails before it even left the station, I mean the review too.
MOVING TO MONTANA SOON
I read Wise Young Fool (due out today! from Little Brown) sitting in a chilly hotel room in Cusco, Peru, during the couple days it took me and my children to adjust to the radical changes in altitude and gut flora that accompany - well, going to Peru. Which sounds like a euphemism, and in fact is now a euphemism in our family. Poor Peru. In truth, we had a wonderful three weeks there, and we will remember so many wonderful things about that trip - but I'm pretty sure it's only the vomiting that will live on in our family's linguistic microculture.
I love a good linguistic microculture. Future Swearing, school-specific slang and in-jokes, whatever's going on in Riddley Walker. It can go too far, though, and here is where we swing back around to talking about teen literature and Sean Beaudoin.
WAIT. SPOILER. WISE YOUNG FOOL IS EXCELLENT. I just have a few things to say before we get to that part.
THE GOSPEL FROM OUTER SPACE
I have been reading Sean Beaudoin's books for a while, and I find them intriguing. Beaudoin is - I guess I'll have to use the term "prose stylist," - a person who finds a groove and writes in it, somebody who adds syncopation, frill, and rumble to his writing. And this is something of a rarity in young adult fiction. What's that? You want to know why? Ok sure fine, I'll tell you why: because a lot of people don't think that teens have the sophistication to read through and past anything but the most ordinary deviations from straight prose - text messages, teen vernacular, the occasional cartoon.
I personally think those people are really, really wrong - I am not sure anyone but a teenager has the mental flexibility to read super-styley stuff like John Dies at the End, or Philip K. Dick. You know damn well Chuck Palahniuk and Tao Lin are totally just arrested teens, piling on the attitude. And there's a reason we make college students read Vonnegut and Nabokov. As we get older, we just don't have time for the divine detail.
HE WAS REALLY SAYIN' SOMETHING
Speaking of teens. Googling the author while writing this review I found his contribution to the Dear Teen Me anthology - man, you should read the Dear Teen Me anthology. It's just what it sounds like - people (specifically authors who write for kids and teens) writing letters to their teen selves. Funny, sweet, unvarnished (Tom Angleberger tells his teen self to SHUT UP), and bonus you get to see what a stone hottie Sean Beaudoin was as a youth. The 21st-century Beaudoin has some very harsh things to say about the late-80's Beaudoin's appearance, but there can be no denying: take that shirt off that boy and he's Brendan Fraser in George of the Jungle. The Oiled-Up, Longhair Jungle.
And besides, we all looked like backup singers for Banarama in the late 80s. Hell, I still have that hair. But before I get sidetracked by pictures of Brendan Fraser in George of the Jungle, let me reiterate - the appearance is not the point.
But a little bit it is, because of the aforementioned style thing. (Oh my god. I beg you, stick with me. I've been out of the country for three weeks speaking my barely-getting-by Spanish and now I am barely getting by in English too. But the book, the book deserves your attention.)
WHEN YOU'RE SLAPPED, YOU'LL TAKE IT AND LIKE IT
So, having read most of Sean Beaudoin's books, I can tell you that reading Sean Beaudoin can actually be quite frustrating. You Killed Wesley Payne looked like it was going to be a joyful winner of a book. The cover gleamed, the details (a Vespa, duct tape, a tie) sparkled like cut jet, and the dialogue was like watching Veronica Mars with the Wiseass setting cranked all the way up. (That is a lot of wiseass.)
Any individual page of Wesley Payne is a symphony of what I like in a YA novel. Put those pages together, though, and that book does not cohere. Characters and structure strain hard under a truckload of puns, costume, noir language and mannered gesture, but like an anthro major with a heavy thrift-store habit, the scarves, hats and Bakelite bangles soon become all you can see.
I couldn't recommend this book. But I like funky stuff from thrift stores, so I was definitely going to read the next one.
The Infects was the next book, and I read it during last summer's orgy of zombie novel consumption. That book juked along to a screaming internal soundtrack of, like, Eminem and Nine Inch Nails, running bloody through the trees, all filters burned out and discarded. If Wesley Payne was all Krysten Ritter razor-cut bangs and retro cardigans (to continue the Veronica Mars references and WHY NOT), The Infects wore Weevil's uniform shirts and a chain wallet. The style, while no less intentional, is at least a more casual look.
AND. Heavy style and splattery gore have always gone together beautifully. The plot made some minimal sense - with zombie novels it's all about the metaphor, so "minimal sense" is more than adequate - and the characters had some life to them. Hm. I should note: not actual zombies in The Infects. Living people exhibiting zombie-like behavior. Ergo metaphor.
I could recommend this book - but only to a curated set of young people. The Infects belongs on that little dark-humor cult list I keep in the back of my head. A Bad Day for Voodoo. How I Stole Johnny Depp's Alien Girlfriend. The Rise of Renegade X . Any book by Daniel Kraus.
COME ON NOW SUGAR - BRING IT ON BRING IT ON YEAH
So Wise Young Fool is the book I have been waiting for from Sean Beaudoin. Wise Young Fool is about Ritchie Sudden, high school guitar player, who at the beginning of the book is in some version of juvie for an unspecified offense. As part of his program ("program"), Ritchie visits the facility's therapist, who requires him to write up his version of How I Got Here.
Now, here's where you might have to trust me and stick with Wise Young Fool - you may be a little fatigued with this narrative device. The Compulsory Journal That Turns Into a Mechanism for Self-Awareness (aka Every School Counselor's Wet Dream) has been hideously overused in recent years, especially in teen boy books. The Accidental Genius of Weasel High (freshman assignment). Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick (college essay). Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (obituary). Not to belabor the Veronica Mars thing, but VM creator Rob Thomas used it in Rats Saw God, which I finally read this summer and which is very damn good.
But in this case, Beaudoin uses the writing assignment as more than just an excuse. The device itself is acknowledged - Beaudoin pays scrupulous attention to the process aspect of Ritchie's writing. Ritchie does not want to access his feelings in this manner, does not want to put them on display for the therapist, and so the first entries are challenging, willfully cryptic, bluff and sullen. I read an early chapter thinking, "Man, I am not sure I am going to like this kid," and then on page 44 the therapist says:
"Your writing is full of attitude."
"The good kind or the bad kind?"
"There is no good attitude. There is only how far you'll go to hide your actual feelings."
I roll my eyes. I figured she'd be happy - ecstatic, even - with the stuff I'd written.
"What do you want from me, lady? That's the best I can do."
"Aside from not calling me lady?"
...and I was so relieved. There's a lot of this kind of lampshading in the book, and it's totally appropriate. When you're writing for (or teaching, or speaking to) boys this age, you better call it out - if they notice something and it doesn't seem like you have, you're done, you've lost their attention and their respect. But it's also a pitfall - a writer can spend so much time demonstrating that he's hip to his own artifice that the point gets buried and the artifice is blown. It's a fine line, and in Wise Young Fool Sean Beaudoin walks it with smooth confidence, totally cool, no winking.
The criticism works on Ritchie, too: by page 47 he's admitting that he spent the night before the first day of school trying on everything in his closet to find the perfect "hip yet detached" outfit.
Next thing to worry about is Beaudoin's cleverness, which ran away from him so wildly in Wesley Payne - and yes Wise Young Fool features lists of potential band names, but Ritchie and El have a band, so despite the New Band Name quip being the universal cleverness calling card of the Facebook era ("Ladies and gentlemen, the Linguistic Microcultures!"), they get a pass. Otherwise, the Beaudoin Urge to Coin (new band name!) (sorry) is restricted to proper names (a stepmom named Looper, a hot chick named Ravenna Woods, an ultra-chummy teacher named Dick Asher).
Beaudoin has also resisted that tacky thing where a writer uses cultural shorthand to describe a mood or make a point. Like Cordelia establishing herself as vapid by quizzing Buffy about James Spader and Vamp nail polish, or a book review studded with references to a defunct teen detective TV show. Don't you hate it when writers do that? So lazy.
I did have a brief moment with Ritchie's best friend, Elliot Hella. El Hella? He's Greek. So Hella is... well it's similar to the Greek word for "Greece"... yeah. This is the moment when I had to decide about this book - am I going to go with this? Can we have a kid in a high school rock band whose given last name is Hella?
Elliot Hella is "the dude too cool to know it, too weird to be popular, too hardcore to give a shit. You can practically see the musk rising off of him. In fact, he'd be an absolute monster, a campus hero, a woman-slaying juggernaut, except for how he's six-four packed into five-six, built low and wide and raw, too much torso and not enough legs, compressed, tamped down, ready to explode, a heavy dose of Hella on every front, way too much for some people."
So that's an affirmative. Two down. (Plus, "woman-slaying juggernaut" - this is why I've been in it for the long haul with Sean Beaudoin. I hear Black Francis on guitar when I read the rhythms of these phrases.)
The only other thing to worry about in a YA realistic boy novel is plot, and honestly, nothing much really needs to happen in YA realistic boy novels. The protagonist could have mad cow disease, or be trying to get laid, or, as in this case, be incarcerated, but the point of many realistic teen boy novels, and I've read a lot of them lately, is to give their readers an excuse to relate. Split-up parents, girl who plays you, guy who scares you - teenage boys do not necessarily have someone to talk to about these things, so finding a character in a book that is going through the same thing gives them a chance to remember that they have feelings too.
Wise Young Fool has plot though, and it's fine plot, even with suspense and all - not like anybody gets kidnapped or anything, but you know. There's a Big Game, kind of, and a Mystery, kind of, and then of course we don't know why Ritchie is in juvie until the very end.
Stick with it. You'll be satisfied. With Ritchie's offense, why he did it, and with the book.
"There's just no way for me to express some things to you, since I know exactly how you'll hear it, since I was sitting right where you are not too long ago. I mean, I know for damn sure I wasn't hearing anyone back then. So why should you be any different?"
"Youth is wasted on the young, that routine. How you're doomed to make an ass of yourself until you're finally ready to listen up about a few things. But by then it's almost always too late."
"You got anything worth listening to, Loop?"
She nods. "Yes, I do."
"Will this listening entail descriptions of lesbo dorm sex by any chance? Hot girl-on-girl action?"
She sighs. "Doesn't it just bore you to tears to be such an unrelenting prick all the time?"
I think about it for a minute. "Yeah, actually."
"Okay." She grins and toasts, taking a swig. "Progress."