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.