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

Friday, March 11, 2011

Dialectical Completism: a review of Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt

I collect things. Especially books. And films. And I’m a completist; I like to have entire sets of my favorite things.  Since my sophomore year of college, I’ve been assembling the American Film Institute’s 100 Years...100 Movies list (the original one from 1997—not the 2007 update).  I have ninety-seven so far; I’m just waiting for re-releases of the last three. I collect other films, too, like ones by my favorite directors—Hitchcock, Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, and Scorsese—or favorite TV shows, like The Simpsons.  I also collect favorite books and sets of favorite book series.

The collections are less pristine than they once were, having been boxed and unpacked for several moves (including two semi-trans-United-Statesian trips). And a newly toddling child who clears any and all reachable shelves adds to the torn pages, creased covers, scratched discs, and smudged jackets in my library.  But I’ve learned to let go of keeping things crisp and new (except for signed copies—I at least keep those out of reach).  Because the condition of these items has become less important to me as I’ve gotten older. Maybe it’s just that I want the things that are important to me—items that are useful, enjoyable, and influential—to be readily available. In their entirety.  Regardless of their condition.

Or maybe it’s something else.

At any rate, I can relate to Doug Swieteck’s quest for complete-ness in Gary Schmidt’s wonderful new book Okay for Now (due out April 5). But more on that quest in a minute.

First it’s important to understand young Mr. Swieteck’s circumstances.  For those of you who read Schmidt’s 2008 Newberry honor book The Wednesday Wars, you might remember Doug, a friend of Holling Hoodhood.  This book picks up about where Wars left off, but follows Doug and his family (instead of Holling and his) to “stupid Marysville, New York” in the summer of 1968.

Doug hates his new life in this little town in upstate New York.  He wants to be back near the city, near Yankee Stadium, where he might have another chance encounter with his favorite player Joe Pepitone, who Doug is convinced is the greatest guy in the world.  Young Doug enumerates, in his amusing and endearing voice, all of the things he hates about Marysville (and life in general), including his house, which he calls “The Dump.” Plus his older brother is a jerk who picks on him and steals all his stuff (including his Joe Pepitone signed baseball cap, which is the only piece of clothing he’s ever owned that hasn’t belonged to another Swieteck before him). His oldest brother’s off fighting in Vietnam. His dad is so dissatisfied with his life that he has taken it upon himself to make everyone else in the family absolutely miserable. And the principal at his new school doesn’t think much of him. Nor do several of his teachers—especially Coach Reed.
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
Clarion Books, 2011

But thankfully there are some bright spots in Doug’s Marysville life. First is his mother.  She’s a bright spot everywhere. Especially her smile. Enough said.  Then there is his company-picnic-baseball-trivia-partner/horse-shoe-instructor, who turns out to be his dad’s boss (you’ll need to read the book to fully understand this one). And, of course, there is Lil (short for Lily, short for Lillian) Spicer, who is in the eighth grade with Doug. In their first meeting, she teaches him how to drink a really cold Coke (spoiler: it involves an impressive belch) and offers him a Saturday delivery job at her dad’s store. Lil quickly becomes his first and best friend in Marysville.

But most important is the public library—which is funny since Doug has never before set foot in any other library in his entire life.  Inside he’s drawn to an enormous book in a glass case, which is opened to a painting of an artic tern.  The book is John James Audubon’s Birds of America. And Mr. Powell, a librarian, finds Doug tracing his finger over the image, entranced by its beauty. He immediately recognizes his interest (although Doug won’t admit it—it’s just a bird, so what?), and over the course of the book  teaches Doug (who is unsurprisingly reluctant, at first) to draw. And to draw well

The book is a bit darker than The Wednesday Wars, dealing with weightier subject matter. But Schmidt does so delicately. The story is at turns sad, joyous, infuriating, hysterical, and touching. And it is always sincere. It earns its emotional punches. We can feel the shifts in tone and mood as we navigate through the pages. And he provides subtle markers that tell us where we are in the story. Like with the delivery route.  Doug takes groceries to the same set of people every week, and Schmidt gives us quirky details about these characters and their lives. And how they change throughout the book (especially in their attitudes towards Doug) not only suggests the passage of time but reflects Doug’s internal and external struggles and the evolution of his place in Marysville. Doug learns how to ride the ups and downs of life, whether it be troubles or triumphs with his brothers (both of them, since the eldest returns from war partway through the book), his father, his teachers, or Lil.

Another point of navigation is the plates—individual paintings of birds—from the Audubon book.  Each chapter is centered on one of the plates, either on drawing it or collecting it (again more on the collection quest in a moment). Many chapters involve sequences in which Doug receives detailed instructions from Mr. Powell about perspective, movement, tension, etc.  In short, he learns how to bring life to static images (in the same way writers bring places and characters to life through the use of abstract, static symbols called letters). And Schmidt uses the descriptions of the paintings to create a deeper and more complete understanding of the relationships Doug has with the other characters. For example, Doug’s relationship to Coach Reed seems one-dimensional at first—the aggressive gym teacher and the somewhat mouthy new student. But Schmidt uses the painting of the fork-tailed petrels to illustrate one of the more complex relationship arcs in the story. When Doug and Coach Reed finally talk, really talk, it’s not the result of a direct engagement, smashing into each other as they have throughout the novel to that point. It’s more like they’re circling, circling, until finally the right situation emerges, the right words slip past their lips. They circle, circle until they meet like the petrels.

There are numerous subplots involving a play, a rash of robberies in Marysville, the hijinks (not of the amusing, whimsical variety) of his dad and his dad’s drinking buddy Ernie Eco, Doug’s oldest brother’s search for gainful employment, andoh yeah—the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, but these are secondary to Doug’s primary quest. Yes, we’re finally going to talk about the quest.

When the arctic tern disappears one day and Mr. Powell moves on to teaching Doug about another painting from the Audubon book, Doug learns a terrible truth. The book is very rare, and very valuable. How is that terrible, you might ask? The book is so valuable that few people can afford a copy in its entirety.  So the town of Marysville (which is short on cash) has been cutting individual paintings/pages/plates out of the book and selling them one by one. 

This devastates Doug, and he makes it his mission to return as many of the paintings to the book as he can.

If he succeeds, the book won’t be pristine.  Not even close.  Much in the way my DVDs and books have been battered, crushed, dented, and otherwise damaged over the years. Much in the same way people aren't in "mint condition." Not as children. Not as adults. But the book will be whole.  We can be whole.

For Doug, each plate he collects is literally an important page from his life (underscored by the way Schmidt organizes each chapter). The reassembled book represents a pivotal year of Doug’s adolescence.  A whole book. And a whole person.

Which makes me think that while it’s true that I collect things that are important to me for the simple reason that I like them to be readily accessible for my personal use (in their entirety), I think there might be something more meaningful going on.  The items or libraries we build or collect (of books, films, music, antiques, works of art, toy cars, rubber bands, whatever) are tangible representations of us, our internal selves fit nicely into objects we can (often) hold in our hands. That’s not to say we’re simply a sum of our possessions—that’s not what I mean at all. Doug, for example, doesn’t have much (not even his signed baseball cap that his stupid brother stole and it ended up in the stupid gutter). But the things we value both reflect and shape who we become. As do our quests.  Viewing the films I’ve collected and watched again and again or (and especially) reading the books I’ve read and the notes I’ve made in them at different times in my life, you will begin to get a sense of me. Not an exact me. But a sense. And that me grows and changes as my library grows and changes (as the complete sets I collect grow and change), which will in turn influence what I read and view and collect in the future.  And while I certainly won’t keep everything I’ve read or seen (or even everything that’s important to me), I will always have the quest. And the quest to complete those sets is as important to me as actually having them. Each movie in the AFI 100 represents a story for me (in how I acquired it, where and when and with whom I first saw it, etc.). The list has been an important part of the last nine years of my life.

And Doug spends a year of his life with these plates, which (in the acts of both drawing and collecting them) influence his actions, relationships, and feelings. And he directly impacts the paintings by getting them back to where they belong. Completing the book. "Completing" himself. And in a nice surprise twist at the end (one spoiler I will not reveal in detail), Doug becomes intimately linked to this particular copy of Birds of America, which, after he grows up (and possibly moves away from Marysville), he might never even see again. But it will always be a part of him and he a part of it. As will the quest to reassemble it.

As for me, I think I’ve decided how to fill the AFI void when I get through the list: by collecting the complete works of Gary D. Schmidt.

Recommended for ages 11-15.

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