LHI4BW Day Two: Chris Crutcher and the Novels of Genius

9 Nov

Chris Crutcher was the second and perhaps biggest reason that Pickychick is running LHI4BW—he’s one of my favorite authors of all time, but his protagonists are always male. Out of the ten young adult novels he has written, eight have been named ALA Best Books for Young Adults, four are on Booklist’s Best 100 Books of the 21st Century, and all of them have made the ALA Banned and Challenged Books List (which I consider a testament to how great they are). For the sake of space, I’m gonna give you a preview of my top three of his books: Deadline, Whale Talk, and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.

In Deadline, high school senior Ben Wolf finds out that he has an aggressive blood disease, but rather than fading away slowing with a treatment that will only slow the disease at great physical cost, Ben decides to live out his last year in a blaze of glory without telling anyone. He’s going to be the best 123-pound football player, clean up the local drunk, make it with his dream girl, and get a street in his highly conservative town named after Malcolm X to piss off his close-minded civics teacher. But the more he puts himself out there, the more uncomfortable secrets he learns about his town, his friends, and himself.

I read Whale Talk a long time ago, and it stuck with me until I read it again. T.J. (real name: The Tao Jones, no kidding) is the captain of the swim team, but it’s a seven man team made up of misfits and outcasts, not to mention an obese boy and a kid with one leg. As they face down the challenges in the pool, T.J. struggles to help a young African-American girl being verbally abused by her father, to deal with a bully who gets worse treatment at home, and to convince the athletic council to allow the swim team to letter.

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is actually about Eric (nicknamed Moby, because he and the whale are about the same size) whose only friend is the sharp-tongued Sarah Byrnes, a girl with horrific burn scars across her face. They originally bonded over their outsider status, but now that Moby is on the swim team, he’s losing weight and gaining social status, and begins overeating to maintain his normal weight and solidarity with Sarah Byrnes. When she ends up catatonic in a psych ward, Moby discovers the horrific truth of her burns, and races against the clock to save her.

Each of these books is chalk full of subplots and unique supporting roles—a right-wing religious extremist trying to cope with the abortion he forced on his girlfriend, a father who accidentally caused the death of a child, a pedophile just barely controlling his urges—as everyone struggles against those terrible questions that life asks, and us lowly humans still don’t have an answer for. How do you deal with unfathomable trauma? Or others who have been traumatized?

Though Crutcher’s narrators vary in location, size, ethnicity, and viewpoint, they all hold several important factors in common. They all find solace and inspiration in sports (generally swimming, running, or football), all respect women and people on the social fringe, all have a strong moral code. But most interestingly, they all run up against a close-minded authority—principal, teacher, coach, parent—and none of them back down. Each boy has a fight that is his way of preserving his personal integrity while also sticking it to the authority; winning a race, a ruling, a bet. They’re funny guys who mess up a lot, but are willing to admit their mistakes and do what they can to avoid or erase them. They don’t always win literally, but they all win in the grand scheme of things: ie. they leave the book happy and at peace.

In his other life, Crutcher was a child and family therapist and so his books inevitably come from a place of truth, tragic though it may be. Child abuse (physical, verbal, and mental), teen pregnancy, death, dealing with parents, bullying, sexuality, integrity, mental illness, handling failure—they’re all fair game. To date, Crutcher is one of three novelists who have made me cry, and he manages it about every other book. But his irreverent wit and (bawdy) humor, both of which he is known for, keep these stories from ever being depressing; in fact genre-wise I’d be tempted to put them in Humor. At the end of the day, each book represents a message of hope and toleration rather than some sort of warning about the horrors of life.

If you do nothing else, you should read at least one of Crutcher’s novels, which are: Running Loose, Stotan!, The Crazy Horse Electric Game, Chinese Handcuffs, The Deep End, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Ironman, Whale Talk, The Sledding Hill, and Deadline – plus two collections of short stories and an autobiography. You will A) not be able to put it down, B) laugh often, and C) be changed forever.

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