Oh my god. This writer.
This book is the gentlest, most humane disemboweling I've ever experienced. She's got a knack with a knife, Marchetta, filleting me word by word. She peels me like a snail, and what's left is the unformed invertebrate mush of my adolescent self. I've managed, just barely, to keep from the overshare with my last two Marchetta books, but I can't do that here. She's gotten me. She's gotten my by the throat.
Once, I walked out of a house during a fight, a bad fight, the kind of fight where even my memory of it is bruised and puffy. He was a friend, and then a lover, a night-and-a-half stand, and I had battered myself bleeding on how indecisive the stand was. I was yelling, and crying, a maelstrom of wild embarrassment. (Oh God, I hate still how bad I felt, and how most of it was my fault.) And then I closed my mouth, and looked at him - I can admit now that he was stricken too, in his own way, helplessly watching his friend go insane - and then I got up, and walked out. He stood on the lawn and watched me drive away.
It would be overly dramatic to say I never saw him again, but that was more or less the truth of it for years. Years and years. I was a cracked and leaking mess for months, my life caught in a wobble. I'd returned untriumphantly to my hometown after an abortive attempt at college, half-assedly taking classes at the U, living with Mum and my high-school aged sister. He had been my best friend upon my slinking return, staying up too late doing the stupid projects he dreamed up, useless and hilarious projects predicated on a scaffold of inside jokes and too much time and not enough ambition. He liked to drive at night in his parents' looming station wagon with bench seats. He had an insomniac's knowledge of the city's geography, and I'd act as passenger, my legs up on the dash. There are Indian burial mounds in a sleepy neighborhood in St Paul overlooking the highway and then the river, and they are magic in the dark hours.
So yeah, Tom. I know you, you asshole. I know how I broke my own heart on you. I know other Toms too, the boys vomiting up blood and beer, vomiting up the pain of their fathers who hit them or their mothers, or walked out, and didn't walk out but wound down so tight that nothing came out again, nothing. Boys who would go out drinking and work shitty jobs and tumble. Boys who played the guitar like dervishes, their fumbling lyrics badly rhyming their attempts at speech. Toms that could cleave you in two with five words, or none at all.
This one boy, another of my Toms, an arrogant, beautiful dude, explaining the power of Shakespeare's Sonnet 29, drunk, to a group of my friends, and it was a moment of awe. They hated him, rightly, because he was a powerful asshole. He was mean to them because he thought it was funny, and much of the time it was. Sometimes it was just mean. The then, holy God, here was this moment, his unalterable self on display in another man's words.
When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Where the hell did that come from? This was a guy who played the football pool, and was working from casual alcoholism to the more complete kind. It was not enough that he had this inside him, but it was a close call there for a while. He had a twin bed. Whenever I slept in it, I had the sensation that I was going to fall in my sleep, my hips perched on the edge. I never did. I had resolved not to, and this was one of the few times in my life where resolve actually worked. I was not going through that again, landing on the floor and bruising my metaphorical ass. His brother was an older version of him, same shit-stirring, same laugh, and he threatened me once gently, when we were in a kitchen alone from the rest of the group. What do you think about Tom? He asked. There was a moment. Other than the alcoholism, of course.
I laughed. Yeah, other than that. You know, he's an asshole, but I like him. We have a good time.
Don't you go breaking his heart, he said.
I was surprised, him? No offense, but I'm pretty sure I'm nowhere near his heart. He's safe from me. His brother laughed. Tom was in the next room fighting his brother's girlfriend for access to the CD player. I was too stupid and young to understand what his brother was saying. Maybe I was the Tom there. Maybe there's no maybe about it. Good times, bad times, bad timing.
But this isn't just about Tom; there's also his aunt, his friends, his family, all these people struggling on after heartbreaks that have calcified, generations of losses that accumulate and have to be spaded through, disinterred. It's bold choice to follow a 42-year old pregnant woman as protagonist in your YA novel, bold as grief, bold as receding youth. I feel like sometimes fictions of the post-high school years insulate themselves from other generations. Dad does a walk-on so our hero can resolve his issues. Mom wrings her hands and sends money. But you don't graduate into a seemless world of your peers, you keep eating at the family table, fighting politics, sending emails. The real world out there, the one everyone has been warning you about, is the same world with crow's feet and more silence. It's the same bed you fell out of, and maybe you can sleep on the couch for the rest of your life, or maybe you can't.
I've said this before, but I am in awe of Marchetta's dialogue, some of the best I've ever read, ever. Character and voice in the same utterance, I'm in awe of her sprawling, almost gossipy plots that keep a slow burn going that makes your eyes burn and sting. Most of all I'm in awe of her compassion, the way she makes me think about my younger self. Mostly I'm ashamed of younger me - she's an embarrassment and a natural-born idiot. Marchetta makes me cry for her, makes me love her in spite of her faults, because of her faults. It's an uneasy love, and it wobbles, but when it winds down I'll spin it again.