So, I should start this post by disclosing that I have a personal connection with this book and its author. I want to acknowledge my personal baggage (a topic that has been addressed particularly well in the comments to the most recent post about The Fault in Our Stars), which is:
- I know Matthew Quick, and have followed his career with interest, because he was my sister’s favorite and most influential high school teacher,
- I’ve had coffee and exchanged some tweets with him,
- And he signed a copy of his first YA title, Sorta Like a Rock Star for my high school library’s collection.
All of which is to say, I have a great deal of affection for Quick, and for his books, and now that I’ve said all that, I think I can set it aside for the purposes of this review, in which I’ll make the case that his most recent YA title, Boy21, is a possible contender for a Printz Honor.
To me, this book is a gritty, modern fairy tale, where the fairy godmother is BOTH a PTSD-suffering black kid AND the Irish mob, where the hero is a self-described “minimal talker”, himself a survivor of a deeply traumatic family tragedy, and where the kingdom the hero lives in is an economically depressed Philly suburb where order is kept primarily by the aforementioned Irish mob. Bear with me. And be warned: Here Be Spoilers, in abundance.
Main character Finley McManus lives with his dad, a depressed bridge toll-taker and his grandfather (aka Pop), an alcoholic, wheelchair-bound amputee. Both Dad and Pop are widowers, and as in classic fairy tales, the lack of a mother — and the mysterious but clearly dreadful circumstances in which Finley’s mother died — looms over the narrative. Silence and basketball are Finley’s two main tools for coping with his depressing surroundings — at one point, Finley and his girlfriend Erin (coping mechanism #3) are on a dribbling-practice run through town and Finley notes “a line of row homes that are as broken and gray as Pop’s teeth” – a line that illustrates Pop’s tough life before his double leg amputation as well as the decrepitude of the town.
Erin and Finley are set on escaping Bellmont together, with basketball as their way out. Finley is pretty good — good enough to be the lone white player on Bellmont High’s varsity squad — but Erin is really good, like Division One University good. Finley’s hoping to round out a solid high school career with one last championship, then head to community college close to wherever Erin winds up, but then two things get in the way: Russell Allen (a Kobe Bryant-level high school player) starts attending their school, and later, Erin’s leg is shattered in a hit & run car accident-on-purpose.
Russ, who is enrolled at Bellmont High under the name Russ Washington, is living with his grandparents following his parents’ murder in Los Angeles. In his grief, Russ has developed a coping mechanism of his own: he’s developed an alternate persona, Boy21, a robot from the cosmos, as he puts it, “programmed to treat all Earthlings with kindness.” Finley’s coach thinks he’s a great match to be a true friend to Russ, and it’s clear, even before readers discover the truth behind Finley’s mom’s death, that he is: they are both, in spite of their crummy circumstances, caring and sympathetic people. The catch is, Russ, the professional-level player plays point guard. Finley’s position.
There’s a whole bunch going on here, thematically in particular. For my money, Matthew Quick has few peers for addressing issues of class, privilege and lack thereof in contemporary YA. So many otherwise terrific YA titles take place in a bubble of wealth and privilege, but Boy21 is resolutely placed in a sadly forgotten and ill-treated backwater of the Great Recession. He manages to discuss race (particularly the changing demographics of Bellmont), lower-middle-class suburbia, and opportunity in a way that is serious but never heavy-handed. His way of describing Bellmont makes it feel not only like a real place (as a nearly lifelong resident of the Philly suburbs, myself, I was scanning my mental map of the area to pinpoint places Quick might have drawn on to create it) but almost a character in the story itself. And Finley’s voice is a marvel — he draws the reader in, confiding in us but also skilfully holding back all the truth, the way someone would when he’s constantly lying to themselves and everyone else about the most influential event in his life.
The book’s opening has a real Once Upon A Time feel to it, and the sob-inducing final chapter feels a helluva lot like a Happily Ever After to me. This only works if you read it as a modern fairy tale, and I do — because of the symmetry of the book’s open & close, the further symmetry of the Irish Mob attacking female family members to get back at male participants’ wrongdoing, the friendships, and the substitution of basketball for traditional heroic skills like horseback riding, archery, or swordfighting. As Kelly over at Stacked pointed out in her predictions post a few weeks ago, there’s something about this novel that feels classic, like it’ll be read and reread for years to come. To me, that’s deeply worthy of discussion at the RealPrintz table, and I won’t lie: if Boy21 nabs an honor, I’ll let out a whoop of barbaric yawp proportions and do a little happy dance for Q.