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“Badd” by Tim Tharp

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Tim Tharp was a runner-up for the 2008 National Book Award (Young People's Literature) for "The Spectacular Now," his fantastic novel about a teenage alcoholic in extreme denial. Tharp is back with "Badd," another novel featuring an unreliable teen narrator with a precise, rich voice who faces some very serious issues. While "Badd" lacks the charismatic lead and disarming buoyancy of "The Spectacular Now," it is still a compelling read.

In a hot summer in a small town, high schooler Ceejay McDermott is playing paintball with her crew, crushing on her friend Tillman, and counting the days until her idolized older brother, Bobby, returns from the Iraq War. Ceejay is a tough, no-nonsense girl. From her descriptions, her steely reserve and bad ass approach to life are nothing compared to Bobby. Before he left for Iraq, Bobby was a wild, charming tough guy willing to (literally) fight for the little guy and raise plenty of hell along the way. When Ceejay spots Bobby in a car weeks before his planned return, she and goth girl best friend Brianna track him down to a stoner buddy's apartment. Turns out Bobby was discharged early for drug possession. The vacant man who has returned home — at times enraged, skittish, and lost — is nothing like the brother Ceejay remembers. Bobby is jumpy and troubled, freaks out at the smell of grilled meat, has flashbacks of exploding IEDs and dead friends, and numbs his pain with booze, drugs, and women.

Inexplicably, Bobby soon hooks up with the town's most eccentric resident, Captain Crazy, a man who lives in a trailer surrounded by huge sculptures designed to ward off evil spirits. The Captain lost his own brother back in Vietnam, so despite his childlike exterior and odd behavior, he knows full well the heartbreak of war. Bobby recognizes something of himself in the Captain — or maybe finds in the Captain something worthy to protect — and so, despite encountering scorn and negativity, embarks on a mission with the Captain to build a flying contraption (an "aero-velocipede") named Angelica.

Too weird? Maybe. "Badd" is a strange juxtaposition of gritty reality — the town people's casual drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and infidelity; the wasting death from cancer of Ceejay's grandma; Bobby's post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal behavior; the Captain's mental illness — and fanciful notions of unseen good forces, a misfit revolution, and the redeeming freedom of flying unfettered through the sky. I'm not entirely sure it all meshes together, and I haven't even touched Ceejay's growing romantic relationship with Padgett (Mr. White), a sensitive, compassionate teen who wears all white as a sign of hope.

Perhaps if the character leading us through this story was more open or displayed some more vulnerability, "Badd" would've had a stronger impact on me. But Ceejay is so blankly inexpressive and so unwilling to examine her own pain and fear that it leaves a gaping hole at the center of the story. Yes, Ceejay's voice is strong and clear and I know exactly who this rough, brave girl is. She bullies Brianna, beats up a drunken lout, worships her heroic brother, hides her true feelings, and is convinced in her heart that she will never be pretty, popular, or loved. That's a deeply rendered character. She just never fully grabbed me. So while I liked how Ceejay's own issues color her views of and decisions toward Bobby and his behavior, I simply could not connect with her, even in her softer moments with Padgett or younger sister Lacy.

None of this is to say that "Badd" isn't a good read. It is. Bobby is so traumatized and lost that I couldn't help but get pulled into his suicidal descent and fragile recovery. As bizarre as it is, Bobby's relationship with the Captain, full of sacrifices and kindness, is touching and believable. I wanted them both to survive. I was even glad to see Angelica soar across the sky, as this sweet if somewhat pat conclusion felt well earned. I guess I just hoped (er, expected) a bit more from the great Tim Tharp. In the end, although "Badd" never reaches the transcendent heights of "The Spectacular Now," it's a still an intense, worthwhile book.

PS – "Badd" is definitely intended for a high school audience. We're talking about loads of strong language, ample drug and alcohol use, sexual references, and the kind of painful emotional distress that is probably best suited for teen readers.

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Posted by on March 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Spectacular Now” by Tim Tharp

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Tim Tharp's "The Spectacular Now" was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature (please click here to read an interview with Tharp on the NBA website). After reading this almost stream of consciousness peek into the last few months of one teen guy's senior year of high school, I can definitely see why. "The Spectacular Now" is authentic, lively, and ultimately disturbing in a way I can't identify.

Sutter Keely is the senior guy in question, and he's quite literally the life of the party. Sutter is so precisely portrayed that I understood exactly who he was. You know that charming, exuberant, scruffy, kinda lovable screw-up that girls always think they can tame or protect or somehow fix? That's Sutter. He can talk to anyone, making that person feel special and magical for those few moments in his spotlight. He's all about fun and adventure and maybe even a little danger. Sutter's problem? He's also a closeted, mostly functioning alcoholic ("god's own drunk," as he says), driving around Oklahoma City with a Big Gulp 7UP generously laced with whiskey. Sutter drinks constantly, from the time he wakes up right on through the day, even getting loaded for his job at Mr. Leon's men's clothing store and before a dinner at his uptight sister's house. Sutter's easy, natural charisma helps deflect many of the consequences of his drinking, and he's in full-on denial mode about any other problems it might be causing. See, Sutter's all about "embracing the weird," and he's hit on something so many anti-drinking crusades miss: drinking can be a lot of fun. That's why kids do it. So while we as readers see all the scary issues raised by Sutter's drinking, he thinks he's living it up right in the moment. In the spectacular now.

Sutter's life is already careening pretty far out of control when he meets the shy, nerdy, sci fi geek Aimee. Well, "meet" might be too strong a word for what actually happens. Sutter blacks out after a night of drinking, waking up to discover that he's in an unfamiliar neighborhood — sitting on someone's front lawn! — and being roused by a quiet newspaper delivery girl. Sutter initially takes on Aimee as a kind of project, thinking he can boost the confidence of this gentle, meek girl and really do something right in his life. Along the way, he learns that Aimee is pretty spectacular herself, despite — or perhaps because of — her love of horses and Commander Amanda Gallico and her unquenchable, maybe naive capacity to dream big dreams. Unfortunately, Sutter, in "helping" Aimee, also introduces her to the lure of near-constant drinking. All this leads to a climax that is touching, real, and unexpectedly sad.

I'm not entirely sure this book will be fully appreciated by its target audience of high school age readers. As a (cough) somewhat older reader, I recognized Sutter's character and knew exactly how pathetic he'd be with another 10 or 15 years of "partying" under his belt. While Tharp capably conveys this very point when we meet Sutter's estranged dad in Fort Worth, I'm still not convinced those without the life experience will fully appreciate the utter depth of Sutter's impending decline.

Regardless, this is a real "wow" kind of book. Sutter's voice is so compelling that I felt like I was strapped into some sort of amusement park ride run amok. That's what the narration of his life feels like. You will absolutely root for this terribly flawed but well-intentioned guy, who will disappoint you and surprise you in equal measure. Plus, Sutter's relationship with Aimee is so hopeful and tragic (at the same time!), that it's reason alone to read this outstanding novel.

Please know there are lots of drinking (well, duh!), drug, and sexual references here. Even beyond that, I think the somewhat subtle nature of this story lends itself more to high school age readers. Finally, although my description here might make "The Spectacular Now" seem like a dull "issue" book, nothing could be further from the truth. The great feat of this novel is how it manages to make self destruction seem so incredibly attractive. Truly, although it may sound odd, this is an energetic, almost bouncy story of one boy's slow descent into real despair and heartbreak. It is definitely worth reading.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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