First things first: I hate the boy.
It's not that high school freshman Teddy LeClare, main character of Phil LaMarche's American Youth (published by Knopf Canada), isn't worthy of a story. It's "the boy" that I hate, LaMarche's stylistic choice that ensures we never forget for a moment just how alienated this kid is. It's the kind of technique that works well in a short story, providing an instant idea of where one stands in relation to the tale, but a novel begs for something subtler:
The boy knew it was dangerous, driving with a drunk. He'd seen the commercials. He'd been subject to the campaigns in school. But to care about your physical well-being, you have to care about your physical well-being. The boy's drunk mind fantasized about crashing full speed into one of the broad pines on the side of the road - his body flying into the dashboard, through the windshield, headlong into the trees and small saplings. Pain was what his body craved. It pleaded to be burned and scalded and dashed to pieces. It longed for relief.
It makes it very clear that Teddy doesn't inhabit himself, but it keeps me from getting close to him, too. It overpowers things, like serving horseradish as a side dish instead of a condiment - it distracted me from the more delicate components.
In spite of this common complaint, "masterpiece" makes a frequent appearance in the buzz and reviews for the novel. Thematically, the book covers attention-getting ground. The key event of the story is a shooting that leaves one of Teddy's friends dead; the book is the story of what follows. But American Youth isn't so much a book about guns as it is one about cultural conflict and change.
Teddy's economically-depressed small town is becoming a suburb, and there's an us versus them element as the population changes. As Teddy is adopted by a gang of suspender-wearing, morality-focused, Second Amendment-defending teens (the titular "American Youth"), it becomes clear that it isn't the deadliness of the bullet that mattered so much as the illuminating flash of the gunshot. It's a real world discussion that is so polarized that understanding the other point of view seems impossible, making it the perfect place for fiction.
Unfortunately, the boy's alienation keeps the reader from getting close to any of the points of view involved. And LaMarche sometimes resorts to facile stereotypes. They act, perhaps, as signposts (like "the boy"), but they don't put the reader any closer to understanding Teddy and his world, or themselves and their own. Take, for instance, this description of the gunshop-running mother of one of the American Youth:
When they got close, she looked down at her watch and shook her head. She was a big woman with short gray hair, but when she shook her head, the boy saw that it was long in the back.
"Would it kill you to get here on time?" she said.
"I have school, Mother," George said.
"Don't give me that."
Where is the surprise in that?
For me, this is the novel's biggest problem. It's not a bad book — it is a quick and often compelling read — but the alienation and the lack of surprises ultimately left me feeling merely lukewarm. As I started to write this review, I realized that I had strong memories of the events that opened the novel, but dim ones of its ending. The book's surprises — and, indeed, the story I wound up wishing it had told, the story of Teddy and his mother's attempt to protect him, and herself, and their family — are in its first few chapters. Though some of these ideas are revisited as the book concludes, the payoff never seemed to happen. Like Teddy, I never felt that I was any closer than "somewhere inside [my] skull, watching the room through the windows of [my] eyes."
It's close, but it was never close enough.