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.

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