Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Spectacular Now: A Spectacular Read

Little known fact - I'm a huge YA fan. I love well written adolescent literature, like really love it, but the problem is, there's not a lot of YA lit that lives up to my high standards. That's why when I find something that is, I want to shout it to the heavens. I tend to prefer the YA classics to the stuff that's written now, like oh dear God, Twilight and the like. Yuck. I like the literary equivalent of a John Hughes movie; books that really show what real teen life and teen angst is like. Realistic depictions with kids who aren't Mormon chastity fantasies.

Most recently I loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which took me back to my own high school years because it was set in the year I would have graduated had I actually graduated (Class of '91 woo).

But now I've topped that with The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp and wow, this was an incredible book for teens and quite possibly the most accurate portrayal of Millennial high schoolers I've read. Honestly, I was thankful my husband played with my daughter this weekend just so I could finish this book, which I did in a short weekend. I couldn't put it down and now I can't stop thinking about it.

The plot is simple, but this isn't a plot driven novel. It's a character book with an unforgettable narrator.

Sutter Keely is an uncanny cross between Holden Caulfield and Ferris Bueller. The resemblance is so close that I'm 98% certain this was exactly what Tharp had in mind when he created Sutter, an alcoholic party boy, whose exploits are fueled by whiskey and 7UP. Sutter is the uninhibited life of every party. Dramatic scenes ensue wherever he goes and it seems as if he is well loved by his peers. To a point. 

Sutter has no sense of boundaries and seemingly very little self-awareness and since the book is told in the first person it's important to remember that we have an unreliable narrator here. Because of that, when reading this book, you have to be a reliable reader. Luckily, this book, which was a National Book Award finalist by the way, is so well written that it's easy for the reader to read between the lines of Sutter's bravado and to understand through the words and actions of those surrounding him what is truly going on. This quality is what I think makes this an extraordinary read. I like doing a little extra work as a reader. I like uncovering a complicated character's mysteries.

Sutter is a child of a divorce he doesn't fully understand or know the details of. His older sister is married to a rich guy and has fake boobs. He can't stand his step-dad, he's failing algebra and may not graduate, his "fat girlfriend" Cassidy dumps him and he appears to just want to have a good time to forget everything around him. All the time. But Sutter has no understanding of the consequences of his actions.

A novel told from the point of view of an asshole party boy holds little appeal, but Sutter Keely is impossible not to love. Think Ferris Bueller. Remember the scene where Ferris persuades Cameron to get out of bed and steal his dad's car and Cameron can't say no because even though Ferris is a total pain in the ass he's also irresistibly lovable too? That is Sutter Keely and more, because behind the drunken stunts, behind the foolhardiness is a character filled with compassion. He possesses such a genius-level of understanding for others (though none for himself) that the reader can't help but to fall in love with him, because above all, Sutter Keely is kind and means well and wants to be loved, though he believes himself ultimately unlovable.

After one particularly reckless evening, Aimee Finecky, the nerdy girl from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, finds him passed out on the road. Sutter is intrigued by this unusual girl and takes her on as a pet project, intending to boost her confidence. What ensues is a love story, a prom, a mess, a road trip, several accidents and misunderstandings and then, finally, an ending.

Reading the reviews of The Spectacular Now, it's apparent that a lot of readers didn't get or didn't like the ending, but I didn't take issue with it. I won't spoil it, but the ending can seem abrupt and the ending is for sure not very Hollywood. What I will tell you is that this is a book written by an author who knows alcoholism well and that the ending, to me, was simply a realistic reflection of that. This is a book about an alcoholic and the ending is very much in line with the behavioral patterns of alcoholics, ambiguous as it might seem to some readers. People who are familiar with the effects of alcoholism on personality will instantly know what I'm talking about and if I seem vague, well, just read the book.

Just read the book anyway, even if you're an adult. If you know a teenager, make them read it too. If you teach high school or undergrad college, consider putting this book on your class's reading list. I promise your students won't complain about not being about to "relate."

This is a beautiful novel. John Hughes would've been proud. There is also a movie out now, which I haven't seen due to a New Year's resolution to stop watching movies made from books and getting pissed off, but it was widely acclaimed at Sundance so you might want to check it out anyway.
 


The book is a great deal on Amazon now. It's only around five bucks on Kindle and six dollars or so in paperback, which is a steal. Usually I don't really look at the price of books, but this one caught my eye so I thought I'd mention it.

Up next - I finished Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman and then waited for the sequel Exodus to come out, which I just started today because I wanted to review them together. Give me a week or so on that one.

4 comments:

LowLevelRebel said...

Yesyesyes I am totally a YA fiend (worked the kids/teens section in a bookstore years back) and will add this to the list of books to read. Thanks for the rec!

Dayna said...

I have a little obsession. It is called buying books. I wish I was equally obsessed with reading as fast as a buy. Life is just too busy.

Anonymous said...

This is what YAs are reading now? When I was YA I was reading Huxley, Orwell and Golding. Now decades later I am living what they wrote.

jmm said...

If you like YA, please check this one out. An old friend of mind wrote it. I confess that I haven't read it yet, but I started it and it seems really good. You can "look inside this book" to check it out.

http://www.amazon.com/So-Called-Ruined-Life-Tate-McCoy/dp/1937226212/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1399052549&sr=1-1&keywords=my+so+called+ruined+life

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