Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Spectacular Now

I'm going to take a break from rotely listing new award winners to mention a terrific book that should be getting a lot more attention than it is: Tim Tharp's The Spectacular Now. Yes, it was nominated for a National Book Award, and you'd think that would be enough, but somehow it barely seems to be on the YA radar.

It's a character-driven book so the plot isn't the most important thing, but the gist is this (and there are spoilers ahead): Sutter, a charismatic teen drunk who can't see how messed up he is, meets an awkward, nerdy girl who reads lots of sci-fi and wears t-shirts with horse faces on them. He decides he's going to save her, so he takes her to parties, tries to find her a guy, turns her on to wine coolers and Grey Goose, becomes the guy, and encourages her to stand up to her family and make out-of-state college and job plans that she hadn't thought were possible for her. Meanwhile, nothing is changing in his own life except that his friends are outgrowing him, he doesn't graduate and he loses his job because he can't promise to stop coming in with whiskey on his breath. In the final scene, with his friends off to college and their various futures, Sutter ends up in a bar in the middle of the day charming the bartender and a bunch of aging drunks, all the while still convincing himself he's having a spectacular time.

Now, several reviewers have been critical that there weren't enough consequences for the exhaustingly endless drinking (and driving) going on, and/or because Sutter doesn't seem to make any positive changes by the end. I find this curious. It's not didactic in the slightest, but it's still about the most effective don't-drink-too-much cautionary tale I've ever read (if you insist that there be such a lesson from a book like this). The ending is heartbreaking. I bet teen readers will be even more horrified by the fact that he's become his father than I was, and you don't have to be a super sophisticated reader to see where things are heading for him.

I just don't understand the lack of enthusiasm for this book. It's fabulous; I couldn't stop thinking about it for days after I read it, and Sutter has one of the best voices since Brock Cole's Celine (another woefully under-appreciated book, by the way).

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