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

A Comparative Book Review

The following is a book review from a young adult literature class I took during my undergrad.  One of the areas I plan to build up on this site is reviews, so here is a beginning of sorts.

The One-upped Classic?

The once banned, Catcher in the Rye by S. D. Salinger is now often a part of required curriculum.  It’s a story that captures the pains of adolescent and coping with loss quite poignantly, and at times, in a maddening sort of way.  It falls onto banned lists for excessive cussing, sex (though never particularly graphic) prostitution and teenage sex, and homosexuality.  I decided to pick the novel up for a variety of reasons, but what convinced me was one of my best friends declared that he could not take me seriously as a writer until I had read this book.  Intrigued, I dove in.

Catcher in the Rye is a story told from the main character’s point of view, sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield.  In the writing the main character addresses the reader as if writing a letter to someone specific or telling us face to face.  Holden begins by telling us he is going to recall all the, ‘madman stuff,’ leading up to coming ‘here,’ and then proceeds to do just that.

Holden has just been kicked out of his third prep school; the semester’s end is four days away and its Christmas time.  His parents don’t know about him being expelled yet, and he is dreading the confrontation and going home altogether.  After a fight with his dorm mate over a pseudo-past girlfriend, however, Holden leaves the school early, he runs away to spend the days before he is supposed to be home in New York City.

Coming from a wealthy family, money is no object for this excursion.  As we hear his thoughts throughout his recanting of the events, we find someone who is ultimately, sad.  He is suffering from depression, having never gotten over his younger brother, Allie, who died a few years before.  He keeps Allie’s baseball mitt with him all the time.  Family is very important to him; Holden talks about his older brother, D.B., constantly throughout his story. The bond with his family is further illustrated later by his interaction with his little sister, Phoebe.

While no one seems to be aware of what Holden is dealing with emotionally, there are some mentors in his life that attempt to help him.  The first one of these mentors we are introduced to is Mr. Spencer. By request, Holden goes to visit him, the history teacher at his current prep school.  We are able to glean from their interaction that Holden has a lot of potential, and teachers, adults, want to see him ‘snap out of ‘.

The second mentor is an English teacher from a previous prep school, Mr. Antolini. He goes to see him after he finally goes home.   Mr. Antolini seems to have a better understanding of what might help Holden, but Holden is incapable of getting close to people outside of his family.  When Mr. Antolini is trying to comfort and encourage Holden, Holden thinks Mr. Antolini must be a homosexual and/or pedophile.

Everything and everyone, Holden is generally unimpressed and often outright disgusted or disappointed with.  He changes drastically from one moment to the next what he wants and thinks about the situation, as evident with his encounters at the bars with the women he dances with, and later, Sunny the prostitute and her pimp Maurice. Then there are women his age that he is interested in, Jane Gallagher, whom he got in a fight with his dorm mate about, and Sally Hayes.  The days he spends in the city he keeps thinking about Jane, and wants to call her but keeps changing his mind.  He goes on a date with Sally, who is willing and wanting to be his girlfriend.

So he finally goes home after a few days wandering the City and demonstrating how completely destructive he is to himself and his relationships with other people.  It’s still before his expected arrival day and therefore suspicious. He goes to see his sister after making sure his parents are out for the evening.  Phoebe genuinely cares for Holden and is very upset about his getting kicked out of yet another prep school.  When their parents return home he hides and after they go to bed he goes to see Mr. Antolini.

Ultimately, it’s a sad tale of emotional pain at an age when coping skills are developing, and men and boys are expected to understand their emotions completely on their own and then keep it to themselves.  There are so many things that society won’t talk about, even though it’s there to be dealt with whether we talk about it or not, like sex, death and mental illness. Holden does eventually, ‘snap’ out of it, or snaps anyway.  He begins and ends the story ‘here,’ as he says. ‘Here’ being the hospital after a nervous break down, which of course, he doesn’t talk about specifically.

In the high school classroom today, a more affective way to address most of the same topics would be by reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky, because while Catcher in the Rye is monumental in what it did as a book, it’s definitely dated for young readers today.  Chbosky writes in a similar method and also pushes the envelope for, ‘appropriate’ content.  For individual reading, I would recommend reading Catcher in the Rye first, because I think I would have enjoyed it better if I hadn’t already read and been impressed with Chbosky’s very similarly toned book.  Salinger is harder to read, partly because the writing is so brilliant—his character’s thought process maddening.  It leaves me wondering if so many people who snapped and went crazy and violent just happened to have reading Catcher in the Rye in common, or if the book, in fact drove them mad.