Say you've got a 14-year-old reader. A boy who is has started to welcome a sliver of romance into his postapocalyptic action novels, a girl who is beginning to find the Wings of Fire novels a little simplistic. Maybe you've got a formerly enthusiastic reader who is suddenly uncommunicative, a good student who is newly plagued by self-doubt, a pair of lovebirds who spend half their homework time texting each other emojis. I am trying - unsuccessfully - not to say 'ugh' to that last one. I mean, there's no harm in texting adorable tongue-stuck-out poofy pandabear hearts to your dear one, but GOD. On behalf of your future self, can I just ask you to knock that shit off? to exhibit some self-respect..?
Maybe just take a break and read a book instead? You might learn something about the way you're acting. Some kids like realistic fiction at this stage - they want examples of how other kids have tried to be cool in the face of first love, they are looking for language they can pilfer when talking back to their parents. That's helpful stuff. But there are also books that examine the darker urges of adolescence, that blow them up and play them out to pitiless extremes.
Jack Gantos's The Trouble in Me is an account of some bad decisions the author made during junior high school in Florida. And When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord is a sort of magic-realist novel about adolescence in a small town. Both books treat coming of age as a sacred and terrifying process, marked by blood and fire, perilous but inevitable.
Let's start with Jack. Cursed with a hypermasculine, insult-slinging father who is always on the lookout for perfection, blessed with a perceptive and sensitive mother, Jack is too young and too much of a fuckup to be the man his dad wants him to be, and recognizes that the sensitivity he has inherited from his mother is not going to be an asset to him any time soon. And because the Gantos family has moved about a billion times, most recently to a Fort Lauderdale subdivision, these are the only role models Jack has, leaving him at a loss when anger and boredom and ordinary developmental urges condense into an intense desire to become someone new.
At the beginning of the book, Jack is hoping to coattail himself to some local kid so that he can gain some popularity at his new school. The kid next door looks like just the ticket, and what is more, turns out to be just the template Jack didn't realize he had been looking for. Tough and cocky, Gary Pagoda is everything younger Jack wasn't, but he's nothing like Jack's dad, either. Unfortunately, Gary is not your garden-variety neighborhood daredevil - he's sadistic and brutal, both emotionally and physically. He manipulates Jack and others with a breathtaking carelessness, and Jack loves it.
Because Gary Pagoda is completely, 100% irredeemable, he would have wrecked the credibility of this book if the book were about characters any older, or any younger. As it is, we buy it completely. There is no dickishness so pure as that of the teenage dick. Likewise, Jack's bottomless pit of self-loathing would feel self-indulgent or melodramatic in an older or younger character.
As it is, though, these characters are mesmerizing to young readers - I watched my kids listening to this book and I could see them making connections to kids they know (the verbally abusive soccer goalie, the boy who likes to shock his classmates with racist and misogynist remarks). As an adult reader, I perceived a deep well of sadness in the book. The shit that kids can put themselves through seems like such a waste, and can have grave consequences. I worry every day that one of my own children will succumb to the attraction of this blackness. It's like standing in front of your reflection in the bathroom mirror and contorting your face to see just how evil and grotesque you can make yourself look, but without the relief of letting your muscles relax back into your normal expression. When you can't remember how to be happy with yourself, 'normal' is what feels most wrong.
Ha - I just realized that that bathroom mirror bit is a complete imitation of Jack. We listened to this book on audio, read by the author, and you can't help but fall into Jack's distinctive rhythms, metaphorical habits, and over-the-top detail - it takes 35 pages and three chapters for Jack to walk across the back yard and light the grill - after listening to that uncompromising voice yammer at you for a while.
By the way, after speaking to some others who have read this book in print, and having both listened to it and read it myself, it might be that this is one of those books that comes off much better on audio. Without Jack's deadpan narration, the outrageous stunts and casual cruelty might seem to have been written solely for laughs. Without Jack reading it all out like a police report, the story might lack verisimilitude, or, worse - consequence. Because you can hear - and don't think he isn't doing it on purpose, one thing you can say about Jack Gantos is that his affect is always thoroughly considered - you can hear, in this slightly grim tone that he uses in the recording, how heartbroken he is for the frustrated and lonely and stupid kid that he once was.
When We Were Animals might seem like a weird book to pair with Jack's sun-stricken, allegedly autobiographical Bad Bromance. Joshua Gaylord's novel is wholly fictional, written for adults, features a female protagonist, and... it's a horror novel. But both books address themes of wildness, freedom, and purity. The behavior of their young characters can best be described as Adventure Scouts Run Amok. And both books are entirely about adolescent transformation and the sacrifices we make in order to change.
Jack hates his younger self so much that he literally incinerates every scrap of its evidence. He writes, "This is the day that I realized that the unknown self deep within me is the self to pursue, and that the known self is the superficial self I have to burn all the way down to the ground without looking back," and in the course of the novel he burns his journals and art - every bit of his imaginative life prior to meeting Gary Pagoda - and then he torches all his clothes except the Gary-suit (t-shirt, tight jeans, alligator creepers and a leather jacket) he has mostly shoplifted from the neighborhood stores. Jack's dad must have bought lighter fluid by the case.
Lumen Fowler, the main character of When We Were Animals, is the opposite. Intellectually mature but emotionally and physically underdeveloped, she wishes only to remain her father's "Little Lumen." And in her small town, adolescence is signaled by a very public change: when the moon is full, for about a year at the onset of physical maturity, teenagers leave their homes at night and run naked through the streets and woods. They show up at school the next day bruised and scratched after spending the night brawling and screwing - a phase they call 'breaching.' But Lumen stays inside, turning up the music to drown out the wild cries of her classmates, willing herself to never breach.
The sacrifices Lumen makes as she tries to maintain her purity - she loses her friends, her virginity, her truthful relationship with her father - are the typical things that are jettisoned during adolescence, but turned around backwards. She sleeps with the nice boy she tutors so that there's no danger she'll end up doing it for the first time naked in some woods with someone less nice. She lies to her dad when he is concerned that she has not yet started menstruating at the age of sixteen. The book is billed as a horror novel, but it is this perversion that I find most disturbing in this book - Lumen's craftiness in service to her dogged belief that she is not like the others. "I wasn't some wild creature," Lumen tells herself. "I was good. I was daylight and homework and logical answers. I was no tide to be puppeted by the moon... You didn't have to give in to every impulse that stirred your blood. You could be better."
It's almost always this denial of nature that leads to the greatest tragedies, of course, but luckily, Lumen give in to the lure before too much damage is done. "I was hot, and there was nothing the fan could do about it. My skin itched, the kind of itch that made diving into a thorny shrub sound like a delicious dream." You see these inversions? Jack's book is full of obstinate contradictions as well - the knee-jerk self-destructive reactions that some people are lucky enough to have forgotten from their youth. Young Jack wants to be free of himself, so what does he do? He intentionally enslaves himself to the creep next door. When Lumen finally opens the window to the night she observes, "You could get sick to death of delicate symmetry. You could want other things, and that wanting could be ambrosial all on its own."
There is a lot that's realistic in the purportedly fantastical When We Were Animals. Lumen tries to compartmentalize her wildness, to succumb only partway to instinct and urge, but soon discovers unexpected dividends - the loss of control brings with it insights into human nature. She gains an appreciation of her own power and begins to forgive herself for impure urges and thoughts.
And there's much that is horrific in The Trouble in Me. Gary's pranks escalate to initiation, vandalism turns into vengeful destruction, and we see that Gary's abuse of Jack stems from his own self-loathing. Gary Pagoda hits hit Jack whenever Jack asks a question because he despises his own neediness and uncertainty, however sublimated and squashed-down those feelings might be. And there's a ghost in Jack's book, too - his older sister Karen, who lives in her room listening to music and burning incense. She emerges at rare intervals to issue mournful warnings: "'Once I was the most beautiful baby girl in the world,' she said in a weird fairy-tale whisper. 'Over time that baby grew up and turned into the misshapen girl I am now. I'm like a cliffside tree with branches desperately reaching to run away with the wind. I can't get out of here fast enough. I've grown up to become a grotesque version of that baby girl. How could that happen?'" Maybe Karen should go out running with Lumen some night.
Jack continues: "I knew what she was talking about because when I was young I was exactly who I said I was, and did what I thought was right to do. Then as I got older I left that true self behind and began to know myself only through the eyes of the people around me. I reshaped myself and made it easier for people to think I was doing okay because I learned to do just okay things. But I wasn't okay. I was lost."
The third act of When We Were Animals escalates in suspense and weirdness before ending on an unbalanced, spooky note. Lumen's newfound freedom and ability to surrender control tips into dangerous madness. Jack fares somewhat better. He escapes Gary, but not the aimless dissatisfaction that propelled him into Gary's thrall, and in an Afterword we get a glimpse of the real places a lack of direction will get you.
Both of these books are gripping tales that go to extremes. Both protagonists' journeys through adolescence feature a fiery conflagration, the ultimate metaphor of the rite of passage. Depending on how your adolescence went, you may find each of these books gut-wrenchingly sad. And I think they both offer readers currently undergoing their own adolescent struggle potent allegory for making sense of the urges that seem to drive them willy-nilly to seemingly unconsidered acts and attitudes of rebellion or self-defeat.
PS: For months, whenever I saw the title of Jack's new book, I thought it was borrowed from Joan Armatrading - from a song I know really well, a slow number about a seemingly non-flaky person in a stable relationship who falls in love with someone new, causing her to misbehave in ways that make her question her assumptions about herself.
I thought it was an unusual choice on the part of the author, whose musical references are usually drawn more from the AM dial, or are at least a bit more uptempo than this bittersweet, soulful love song, but whatever. I was way off base - as far as I know Jack Gantos wouldn't know Joan Armatrading if she serenaded him from the stage at the Village Vanguard on New Year's Eve - and in fact I had the song title wrong anyway - it's "The Weakness in Me," not The Trouble in Me. I'm sticking with it though, partly because I am not a back-downer by nature, but also because this verse works with some of what I want to say in this review:
Feeling guilty, worried
Waking from tormented sleep
This old love has me bound
But the new love cuts deep
-- from "The Weakness in Me" by Joan Armatrading
Because to answer my own earlier question - NO. Our future selves cannot ask ANYTHING of us. Our future self isn't even IN this song. Our old self is, the one we are growing out of, either with shame or nostalgia, and our new self, the one who troubles our sleep and tortures us in the mirror, is pretty much who these songs are about.