le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Monday, April 25, 2011

most excellent

The semester is almost over; classes ended last week. I'm in the lull before the grading storm - my students will turn in their finals at the end of this week, and I'll be grading like mad until 4 May, at which point grades are due and I will be free from this semester, which has been one of the most difficult, frustrating and work-overloaded of my life.
As a reward for finishing classes, I checked out two large bags full of YA books from the public library. I pestered the wonderfully brilliant and helpful child_lit listserv for recommendations, particularly asking for LGBTQ books, and books that adolescent boys actually read.
One of the suggested titles was Steve Kluger's My Most Excellent Year, a book and author I had never heard of before.
I read it yesterday.
Picked it up in the late afternoon; kept reading until I was finished, late at night.

Normally, I am not very sentimental, and my preferences tend to veer away from romance-driven plots, or any book featuring adorable small children. But somehow, Kluger's book (which is about both romance and an adorable small child) just worked for me. It is delightful. It was a joy to read. At one point, fairly late in the book, I had to go get some food; as I set the book down, I said [out loud, to an empty room] "I love these people!"
When I begin referring to characters as people, I have been won over.

Kluger's book is cleverly - if not originally - constructed as a series of interpolated texts: diary/essay excerpts from the three protagonists - Augie, TC and Alé, written, in their junior year of high school on the theme "My most excellent year"; chat messages; emails; newspaper articles, etc.
The plot is fairly simple, really: TC and Augie have been friends since first grade, since right after TC's mom died. The two boys adopt each other as brothers, and incorporate each other's families into the larger blend - to the point that the boys refer to each other's parents as "Mom" "Dad" or "Pop."  TC's family, going back generations, are devoted Red Sox fans; TC and his Pop share their obsessive love of baseball, specifically the Red Sox. Augie is an American-born Chinese, the only child of a delightfully progressive set of parents: mother writes entertainment reviews for the Boston paper - reviews which are the thin mask of her political activism  - and Dad owns a bookstore/cafe. Augie is also gay, though he "doesn't know it" at the book's beginning (though everyone else does, as we see from TC's writings, and from some particularly affecting emails between Pop and Augie's Dad). Enter Alé, fiercely smart and politically active daughter of the now-retired Mexican ambassador. Alé is beautiful and fierce and well-connected due to her parents' devotion to the diplomatic corps; she fails to ingratiate herself with her new classmates by mentioning attending functions with celebrities and "Bill and Hillary," who actually come to dinner at Alé's family's home. TC - cute, charming, likeable - falls for her right away. She takes one look at his cute, charming, likeable self and settles into disdain, dislike and contempt. She sits with Augie at lunch on her first day at the new school; he wants to pick her brain about encounters with such divas as Judi Dench and Liza Minelli.

Most of the book circles around the problem of TC trying to win over Alé, and Alé trying to resist his charms (which are, evidently, many; every character who gets to narrate in this book, with the exception of TC, swoons for him. I swooned for him before too long). But Augie also has his own set of problems, in the form of Andy - the growth of their relationship is fascinating and adorable and a little painful to watch. Augie's out, eventually, to his totally unsurprised family and friends, but Andy's definitely in, and the push-and-pull of Augie's truly flamboyant outness and Andy's considerably less flamboyant personality is great to watch. 
One of the things Kluger does really nicely in this book is something approaching subtlety, though this is hardly what I would call a subtle book. But the three protagonist-narrators reveal, repeatedly and throughout the novel, how their views of themselves are at odds with others' views of them. For instance, Augie tells us early on how all the boys copy TC's attitude and "look," turning their shirts backward when TC shows up one day with his worn backward. Many pages later, TC refers to this moment of unintentional, and unconscious, trend-setting; he recalls the day all the boys turned their shirts backward, worrying that they were making fun of him. 
Using multiple narrators to reveal different things about characters is not a new trick, but what Kluger does that I really admire is leave those things alone. They don't become plot points, they don't become Heartfelt Discussions Between Friends. We get Augie's version; we get TC's version. There's no further discussion, no further commentary. No talk from anyone about "gosh, I never looked at it from that perspective before."
Kluger uses this same trick to do a narrativized version of he said/she said, too, with TC's and Alé's narratives: each will comment on the same moment, with wildly varying interpretations. We get TC, bemoaning something he said, sure it's set him back months with Alé; pages later, we learn, from Alé, that those very words were the thing that finally broke her resistance to him. 

Because a student recently wrote about this, I was probably more aware of this than I normally would have been, but the relationship between Augie and Andy opens so smoothly, with so little comment, that it's almost shocking. My student wrote about the obnoxious plotline of "we're the only two gay guys here, let's fall in love" that often crops up (cf, Kurt and Blaine in Glee). Augie and Andy's relationship isn't at all staged that way; neither boy is openly gay at first (though Augie's a confessed diva who ends up directing and staging the freshman-year talent show). And there are no awkward discussions about "are you?" or "when did you know?" there's just two boys who totally have crushes on each other, hanging out, being awkward and shy because neither yet knows the other reciprocates, and because neither has had any experience with relationships yet. 

The most sentimental twist is the introduction of adorable Hucky Harper, a six-year-old deaf orphan (I know, right?!) who somehow conceives a passionate hero-worship of TC. This happens around a baseball diamond, because nothing in this novel gets far from either musicals or baseball (a delightful pairing, really) - Hucky watches from the sidelines and shakes his head yes/no at TC, telling him when he should swing the bat. TC ends up with an unreal batting average for games at which Hucky is present. Eventually, the two form a friendship - TC frantically begins learning American Sign Language, seeking extra help from a teacher whose mother was deaf, and who is thus fluent in ASL. There's not a lot of goopiness around Hucky in the text, either - he's adorable and knows how to use his adorableness to his advantage, getting extra hot chocolate and toys by pulling the sad face. The older kids are at once charmed and exasperated - they can see through his ploys, but fall to them anyway.
Hucky is another  moment when Kluger allows us to see TC and Augie differently, without making a fuss over it. TC tells us that Hucky reminds him of Augie, when TC first met Augie - off on the sidelines, alone, lonely. Much later, Augie mentions how strongly Hucky resembles TC right after TC's mother died. Each older boy is motivated partially by his sense of affection for his friend, a friend they see replicated in little Hucky. But they never discuss this with each other, or anyone else; it's simply a dribble of insight that Kluger releases into the novel for the reader to hold in her head.
TC never once does anything but take Hucky absolutely seriously. He doesn't spend much time "poor little tyke"ing; instead, he hangs out with Hucky, and works his ass off to learn ASL. Eventually, a plot unfolds around Hucky's love of Mary Poppins, and his devout wish that Mary Poppins will come and live with him. 

By the novel's end, a number of highly implausible things have happened, through the auspices of some rather deus-like characters: Clint, a secret service agent and one of Alé's closest friends from her childhood, and TC's Aunt Ruth, a member of the House of Representatives. Both Clint and Aunt Ruth are introduced and given personalities from the get-go; neither is dropped in miraculously when needed, so I give Kluger some credit here. 
But when the implausibles start piling up, rather than spoiling the novel, it somehow nudges it right to the line of magical realism, rather than unbelievability. And I think this, more than anything, is what I loved about this book: it has a definite aura of the same kind of almost-magic that good works of magical realism have. It's realist fiction, but there's just a faint flavor, an undertone, of the kind of fantasy that I'd call "fairy tale" in the most benign or positive sense of the word. But this magic is never made cloying or obnoxious; instead it feels like you're watching an improbable set of coincidences and circumstances naturally mesh together to produce a fantastic outcome. And sometimes, though rarely, these kinds of things do happen. 
My Most Excellent Year most reminded me, and strongly, of the equally wonder-full Will Grayson, Will Grayson, though for slightly younger readers, maybe. When the audience full of Will Graysons stands up to appreciate Tiny Cooper, you know, you just know, there's no way that could ever happen. Except for the tiny part of you that says: But why not? and knows that, really, there's nothing to prevent it from happening. And the larger part of you that says: this is wonderful, and I don't care if it could happen in real life or not. 

My Most Excellent Year is not the most literary, cerebral book I've read this year. It's not the best-written, or the most original, or the most shocking. It's not tackling huge social issues (although in a way, it is, quietly, without making a noise about doing so). But it is a fantastic read. The characters - all of them, TC, Augie, Alé, Lee, Andy, Pop, Hucky, Mom & Dad, Lori - are all complex and likeable and funny and kind and thoughtful without ever being so perfect as to be unbelievable or unlikeable. Even TC, who is so highly regarded by everyone (even, eventually, Alé), is saved from being planted on a pedestal by his own narration, which reveals him to be far more complex - insecure at times, wildly overconfident at others, occasionally arrogant, often baffled, a steadfast friend, a devoted baseball enthusiast, a very smart kid with a political bent, a 14-year-old boy with a massive, mostly unrequited, crush on a great girl.

The adjectives I keep coming back to are charmed and delightful - and those are no bad things to feel after reading a book. 

No comments: