boys don’t read Might be. But this gripping novel might get her started again. With its countless pop-culture allusions, “chatting with the universe for a while” offers plenty of docking points for nerds, plus a fast-paced, heartbreaking story, an anti-hero that invites identification, who cultivates a snotty, laconic narrative style, and in an equally entertaining and problematic, school biotope is embedded.
There are three rules for high school that are carved into the interstellar structure of the universe, author Preston Norton has 16-year-old Clifford Hubbard explain at the beginning. “Rule number one: It’s all bullshit”.
In fact, bullshit bingo has always been a staple of US high school, the myth of which is revived time and time again not only in young adult novels but also in comedy movies like Pretty in Pink. But Preston Norton doesn’t let his variation on the eternal coming-of-age theme run towards the usual showdown between loser and football star and their cliques at the prom – fortunately there is no ball in “chatting with the universe for a moment”. – but the conflicting combination of school underdog versus Calvin Klein underpants model winner type, that already exists.
First-person narrator Clifford bears heavily on his misanthropy, Cliff’s middle name could be zero-Bock-auf-School.
The fact that he lives with his parents in a trailer park and can’t even afford a smartphone doesn’t contribute to his popularity at Happy Valley High any more than his regular fights. Others call the colossus “Neanderthals”, which is almost two meters tall and has long weighed more than a hundred kilos.
Cliff has built a solid cushion against the demands of the world and his beating drunk father. But nothing helps. The death of a year ago, Shane, his big brother with whom Cliff shared his enthusiasm for Quentin Tarantino films and 2001: A Space Odyssey, still churns in Cliff’s guts as a searing pain. His refuge when he is suspended from class or plays truant is the “Monolith”, a ruined office building on the outskirts of town.
Shane always referred to the monolith from “2001” as “the gateway of life”. Cliff only understands what that means at the end of a turbulent self-awareness trip that begins with the near-death experience of Aaron Zimmermann, the football star. Aaron, with whom Cliff has always been at loggerheads, is magnetically drawn to his highly irritated former opponent after a swimming accident. Along with a five-point list “from God” that he and Cliff should use to make camp-fighting-toxic high school life better.
Of course, the Gaga story spread like wildfire at Happy Valley High. Much to the displeasure of evangelical Esther and her followers called “Jesus Teens,” who until now believed they had God’s stewardship.
The Jesus Teens face off against a group of drug dealers, a bunch of hackers, a homosexual and a frustrated educator whom Cliff uses the “list” to remind him why he originally became a teacher.
Preston Norton unleashes this personality of social, political and generational division on each other as a matter of course. Including a beautifully casual love story that Cliff experiences as his hatred of self and the world subsides. The happy ending, in which everyone finally opens up and some reconcile, even death and life, that’s a very American moment.