Thoughts on writing and reading for boys and young men.
There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. -Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Monday, August 16, 2010

Featured Book: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
Harper Collins, 1993
I’ve long been a fan of Chris Crutcher. Deadline, Whale Talk, and his collection of short stories Athletic Shorts, are among my favorites. I decided this week to reread an oldie, but a goodie, one of his better-known novels, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. Originally published almost two decades ago, the novel has aged remarkably well and is as relevant and readable now as it was in 1993, managing to touch on such complex issues as adolescent obesity, bullying, conformity, pressure for perfection, abortion, religion, teen suicide, and child abuse (just to name a few) without 1) getting bogged down in too many ideas, and 2) seeming preachy, or even suggesting that there’s a perfect solution to any of these issues (or any solution at all).

The story, set in Spokane, Washington, is narrated by protagonist Eric Calhoune, a formerly obese teen who slims considerably after joining the school swim team (earning him, of course, the moniker Moby).  Only catch, he’s concerned that his newfound slenderness and skill (and subsequent boost in popularity) will estrange him from his best friend Sarah Byrnes, who 1) is burned at age three when she (allegedly) pulls a pot of boiling spaghetti onto her face, and 2) insists on being called by her first and last name at all times because of the way her last name is pronounced (Byrnes=burns), hoping to forgo the latent potential for even more jokes at her expense when people make the ironic connection between her name and her face. So for a time, Eric eats extra, trying to stay fat.  Sarah Byrnes tells him to knock it off, which he does, and they’re able to maintain their friendship, although in a slightly diminished capacity, if just for the fact that Eric spends a lot of time swimming.

But when Sarah Byrnes stops talking one day, stops communicating altogether, and she ends up in a juvenile psyche ward at the hospital, Eric is the only one to visit her. Well, Eric and Sarah Byrnes’s dad, but Eric is the only welcome visitor. Eric is sure she’s faking her stupor, but he doesn’t know why. She won’t talk, even to him. Dale, an enemy turned friend, indicates that the boiling pot of spaghetti story might not be entirely true—or true at all. Eric investigates, and when he discovers the truth, he faces some very difficult and dangerous decisions--and circumstances--to keep his friend safe.

Crutcher does many things well in this novel, but one of my favorite elements is how he weaves together the sublpots, which carry with them such emotional weight on their own but also make the punch—the climax and resolution—of the overall story so much stronger.  Many of the subplots grow out of Eric’s experiences in his Contemporary American Thought (CAT) class with Ms. Lemry, his ally and swim coach. For instance, Eric has several run-ins with Mark Brittain, a teenage religious zealot, both in the pool and in the class, including a battle over Mark’s (ex-)girlfriend, who leaves him for Eric. Also, Mark has the vice-principal (who goes to his church) on his side, a man who’s been on Eric’s case since junior high.

With the exception of vice-principal Mautz, who’s a tad one-dimensional, Crutcher gives us real, living, breathing, complicated characters, wholly authentic and unpredictable. The bully. The religious zealot. The preacher. The single mother. The boyfriend of the single mother. All different than we expect them to be, either at first glance, or at last. Even the terrifying Mr. Byrnes, Sarah Byrnes’s father, is captivating. Trying to figure out what makes him tick is the scariest part of the novel.

And everything holds together so well (remember what I said about all of the subplots?). Eric (and we) are antagonized by Brittain, and his father, and Mautz just enough that Eric (and we) have the strength to get through what’s coming.  And what’s coming is really bad. I even understand why Crutcher draws Mautz the way that he does. His pig-headedness allows the other characters to act in interesting and inspired ways, revealing their nuances, including Mark, Brittain, whose arc is among the most poignant elements of the novel.

Thematically, and even plot-wise, Sarah Byrnes reminds me of Until They Bring the Streetcars Back by Stanley Gordon West, a sort-of historical YA thriller that’s set in St. Paul. Although Streetcars is much darker, and has less comic relief.  But I think Sarah Byrnes is emotionally heftier, and more satisfying, especially for male readers. It’s themes of friendship, shame, and courage, are subtle, but unmistakable. 

And chapter five of this book absolutely breaks my heart. Ellerby, the son of an open-minded preacher, and a friend of Eric’s, brings a recording of the song "From a Distance" with him to class. They listen to it, and the class generally thinks it’s a nice, inspiring song. But Ellerby explains that what the song makes him think about his how far away God really is, and what He, She, or It actually thinks about us, sees of us.  His belief is that God put things into motion, but doesn’t regularly interact with us, and that explains why “bad things” happen (to good or bad people) better than “God has a plan” or “it was meant to be” does.  He uses Sarah Byrnes as an example.  Did God do that to her? Allow it to happen to her?  No. He says it’s out of God’s jurisdiction. How Sarah Byrnes is treated, though, that's firmly within the jurisdiction of humans. Ellerby talks about how, although he doesn’t recall ever being mean to Sarah Byrnes, he never, unlike Eric, ever gave her the time of day. And he could have.

So Ms. Lemry asks Ellerby, given the song and his speech, if his CAT project with be the juxtaposition of God and man in the universe.

He indicates it won’t.  He says, "My subject will be shame.”

Recommended for boys ages 15-18.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


It's the magic time. Late afternoon. Filled up and played out, our six-month-old is down for a nap. It's my writing time. Sometimes it's just a few minutes. Sometimes it's, blessedly, a couple of hours. Sometimes I have to do dishes or laundry. Or have something to eat, because I forgot about lunch. Or didn't have time.

But mostly I write.

Or sometimes nap.

Or often, like now, grab my walking shoes and BabyBjorn because I think I hear him waking up.

Featured Book: Shift

In Shift by Jennifer Bradbury, friends Chris and Win—known as Chrisandwin by everyone at school for their attached-at-the-hip nature, decide to take a cross-country bike trip from their home in West Virginia to Washington state following their high school graduation.  It’s both a last-hurrah before going off to separate colleges and a way to avoid the minimum wage drudgery of a summer job.  But something goes not quite as planned—at least for Chris. He and Win (short for Winston) get separated towards the end of the journey. And when Chris returns home, heads off to college in mid-August, he learns that his friend never returned home at all.  He faces not only the prospect that something terrible happened to his best friend, but also pressure from Win’s father (who’s hired several people to “tail” Chris—including an F.B.I. agent—and threatened to disrupt Chris’s education or even end his dad’s job) to give Win up, convinced that he knows where his son is, what’s happened to him. Or even that he had something to do with his disappearance.
Shift by Jennifer Bradbury
Atheneum Books, 2008
Cover art by Greg Stadnyk
The chapters alternate between the aftermath of Win’s disappearance on the bike trip and the bike trip itself. Bradbury uses this broken time effectively, offering pieces of the mystery just as we need them and staging the action for the most emotional impact when the mystery is finally “solved” (HINT: the why in this novel is the key to the mystery and the emotional heart of the story, as it should be with any good mystery novel—thanks for that lesson, Mary Logue!). I’m using a similar structure for a novel I’m currently working on, and Bradbury’s offered here an example of how it can work really, really well.

Friendship, obviously, is central to Shift. But I’ll get to that in a minute. I also want to talk about fathers, which are also an important part of this story.  Early in the novel, Chris’s dad pulls him aside and tells him to stop just talking about taking the bike trip. Set a date.  And no matter what happens, leave on that date. Apparently he had dreamed about, talked about, saved up for a driving trip along Route 66 when he was much younger. But that’s all he did—prepare. He never did it.  He doesn’t want his son to have that same regret. Later in the novel, both when Chris is on the actual trip and when he’s being harassed by Win’s dad, Chris’s dad is sympathetic, understanding, patient, wise. But believably so. He’s a father you don’t often find in YA literature. He’s refreshing. And I’m glad we have his moment of regret early in the novel, because otherwise he would have seemed a little too one-dimensionally “perfect.”

Win’s dad, on the other hand, is a father figure we’re more accustomed to seeing in YA lit.  Controlling, angry, concerned about family and personal image. He has incessantly chipped away at Win’s spirit for eighteen years.  But Bradbury tempers his otherwise unsympathetic antagonism by letting us see, through Chris’s eyes, him crack a little under the pressure of searching for his missing son. During a scene in which he comes to Chris’s college to bully him into giving up whatever information he has about Win, Chris sees that he’s shaken, almost panicky, under his seemingly cool demeanor. Chris wonders, and we wonder, if maybe it’s not just pride or his son’s shot at the Ivy Leage (Win’s late for reporting to school at this point) that he’s worried about. Maybe he’s actually—finally—worried about losing his son

But in the end, this is a story of friends. Of friendship. Of growing up. Of separation. They start their biking journey as Chrisandwin, together (as friends, as their fathers’ sons).  They end their journey, and the story, as Chris. And Win.

There’s a great scene in a barn in chapter twenty, in which Chris and Win have an all-out, no-holds-barred wrestling match.  They’re not angry at each other, exactly. They just wrestle, as boys do. But the reader senses there’s more at stake than just bragging rights in this match. Chris flashes back to a church revival they came across on their trip, in which the preacher talked about Jacob having to wrestle an angel.  The physicality of the boys working out whatever it is that they need to work out works well.  They’re boys. They don’t talk. At least not about emotion. They act. Even the Jacob v. Angel reflection works well. And when Win demands Chris let him go, we know he’s not talking about him letting him out of the near-pin he has him in. He means LET ME GO. For good.  Then he tells him he’s been a good friend.  A true friend. It's a powerful scene.

The wrestling sequence is just one example of how well Bradbury captures not only a teen male voice but the teen male world.  Chris is thoughtful, smart, and articulate, but he’s still a guy and thinks and feels as guys have been conditioned to (especially teenage guys, especially when it comes to emotion). There’s one point, during the end of the book, where she falters a bit, though.  Just preceding what is otherwise an excellent scene (which I’ll discuss in a moment), Bradbury has Chris recall, for several paragraphs, a long-sleeved T-shirt that he really likes and used to wear all the time. He’s literally outgrown it (oversimplified version: Win=T-shirt). This is a little too obvious. Too clich├ęd. And way too much telling.  Especially for a boy. Everything else in the novel is visceral. Punches we can feel. The wrestling match does the trick. As does the following scene. The shirt isn’t necessary.

Fortunately, this sequence is followed by the scene I just mentioned. Chris is alone with his bike at the end of the trip (Win has already bailed on him).  He rolls his wheel into the ocean and says, “We made it. To no one. Then he revises, “I made it.”  And between this scene and the barn scene, and the hundreds of hints all along the journey, we get understand: Chrisandwin—as noted above—is now Chris. And Win.

Recommended for boys ages 14-17.