Another YAL Review

A Book About Love, Warts and All

“Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes” is by a Washington state resident, Chris Crutcher, known for his humor, incorporation of athletics into his stories and for controversial content.  This book is about a markedly overweight boy growing up in a single parent home.  Because he is teased and outcast for being overweight, he ends up becoming friends with classmate Sarah Byrnes, who is outcast because she has burns all over her face and hands.

The book begins with the two main characters during their senior year.  Sarah Byrnes has had an emotional/psychological break down and is completely non-responsive, catatonic it seems, and Eric Calhoun or ‘Moby’ is going to visit her at the psychiatric hospital.  The nurses and doctors tell him to talk to her, that it could help snap her out of her state.  Through this we find out the two’s history, adventures and shenanigans from junior high specifically.  He visits her almost daily.

All the while, Moby continues to participate on the swim team, where and how he got his nickname as the unusual overweight swimmer. Despite his reassurances, and his noticeable gorging of himself to stay fat for Sarah Byrnes, which he does, successfully, even with all the swimming, she is sure their friendship will disappear.  He has been on the swim team throughout his high school career. On the swim team is Moby’s good friend Ellerby, son of a preacher and an extremely loveable and unconventional Christian, as well as one of the book’s antagonists, Mark Brittain, also the son of a preacher but of a fairly rigid, fundamentalist Christian faction.  Ellerby and Moby regularly compete with and beat Mark Brittain in swim practice.

The story is further woven with the swim coach, Mrs. Lemry, who is also the teacher for a Contemporary American Thought (CAT) class, which involves debate on controversial topics (like abortion) and philosophical topics (such as, is the world generally a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ place).  The religious differences as well as the ongoing competition come out in this class (Brittain is conveniently in the class as well).  Moby uses Sarah Byrnes as an example of the world not being generally a good place and Mark Brittain gets very passionate about abortion, establishing himself as a pro-life advocate.

The abortion debate becomes an interesting hitch, because Mark Brittain’s girlfriend, Jodi, is a long time crush of Moby’s.  More to insult Brittain then to woo her, he debates against Mark Brittain and inadvertently though happily, ‘steals’ Brittain’s girlfriend.  The second antagonist, the vice principal, Mr. Mautz is then involved.

Mr. Mautz was the principal of Moby and Sarah Byrnes’ junior high, but move up to the high school vice principal job the same time they entered high school, ‘following them’ as Moby says. He never seemed to like Moby and Sarah Byrnes, but definitely didn’t like them after they instigated a sort of tabloid for the junior high, where, in at least one they attack Mr. Mautz’s personal life (some of their junior high shenanigans).  It turns out that Mr. Mautz is a member of Mark Brittain and his father/preacher’s congregation.  He reprimands Moby for being so hard on Brittain, though we later wonder who is putting more pressure on Brittain, Ellerby and Moby, or Mr. Mautz and Brittain’s father.

Meanwhile, the scariest antagonist, Sarah Byrnes’ father, Mr. Byrnes is getting more aggressive.   He is threatening to take her home even if she still isn’t talking; he is convinced she is faking it.  Moby and his friend Ellerby help her escape the hospital and subsequently her father’s access to her.  Mrs. Lemry houses the runaway as she has been taken with her story as told by Moby.  Sarah Byrnes is obviously in a dangerous home environment and it incites investigation as to whether or not her burns were in fact created by accident.

To help solve this dilemma, Moby seeks out the unlikely hero, Dale Thorton, who was held back in school several time, resulting in his 16-year-old presence in Sarah Byrnes and Moby’s junior high.  He became friends with the two out of mutual hatred of Mr. Mautz.  Later, when high school started, Thorton and Sarah Byrnes become better friends as Moby has more of his time occupied with his extracurriculars.

When Sarah Byrnes is sprung, Moby receives a genuine death threat phone call from Mr. Byrnes.  Next thing you know, he is actually being violently pursued.  Will he escape?  What’s the true story of Sarah Byrnes? How does Moby’s mother’s boyfriend, seemingly insignificant to the story, suddenly become a hero? And why did nemesis Mark Brittain try to kill himself?  Read the book and find out!

The book’s method of discussing controversial topics is a bit contrived, the psychiatric hospital escape and ultimate ending perhaps unrealistic, and I felt as though in the interest of a publishers deadline, the last forty pages didn’t get the proper revision attention needed. But even with these flaws I thought it was a must read.  Chris Crutcher brings some very important social issues to light, and though you can guess which side he is on, he still presents it in a very non-threatening way.  He makes you laugh, the story is extremely engaging, and before that last forty pages I mentioned earlier, you will not be able to put it down—even if it’s a Friday night and you have a cute boyfriend and a movie waiting.  Think about that for a teacher getting a student