Grasshopper Jungle was an amazing book by Andrew Smith. It came recommended to me by a bunch of YA readers. I loved it. So, naturally, I found another book by Smith, Winger.
Smith does something few parents will like. He tells it like it is without ANY filters. And when i say ANY filters, I mean it. If it’s a curse word and a 14 year old boy would use it, it’s there. If a 14 year old boy would think it, it’s there. Which, in Grasshopper Jungle, I struggled with it. I tend to NOT read crass stories because most read like they are using coarse language for the readers, not for the story. Smith skirts that line better than anyone.
One last comment about Smith’s style. Reading his stories, especially Grasshopper Jungle, but also Winger, it reads as if Kurt Vonnegut rose from the dead and started writing Young Adult. The pithy commentary, the crass language dropped for artistic measure but still means something, sharp and dark humor, is all very Vonnegut. Something I haven’t found on this level in YA or in anything.
The good: Winger is like Looking for Alaska without spending half the book crying.
My assumption is that most of Smith’s readers will be boys. And that’s OK. Winger reads much more like a boy’s story than one for a more neutral audience. Does that mean girls will not get anything from it? Of course not. If teen girls want to learn about the male psyche, the boy meets adulthood struggles, then there’s plenty to learn. And, of course, without spoiling the end, the end has a lesson for everyone.
Smith appears to have a rather prominent gay character in most of his stories. The best part about this is, that’s not what those characters are. They are just teens struggling with life and love and growing up…with a side of gay for good measure. The best kind. They are real. They are genuine. And they’re not there to BE gay.
The only person that makes a big deal about the character’s sexual orientation are the main characters when they continue to wonder about homosexuality the same way they wonder about why parents work for jobs they hate or wonder why the sky is blue. Also, the main character, in this case Winger, constantly struggles with his straightness, the testosterone ‘Queers are stupid’ mentality in American high school sports and schools as a whole, and the ‘how can I be friends with a gay guy but not be gay…am I gay?’. You know, the questions every boy asks himself (mostly because all he thinks about is sex) and probably girls too since I assume girls go through at least SOME sort of ‘sex is the cool new thing to think about’ phase at some point in their lives.
The not so good: Winger’s story did 2 things I just couldn’t get past.
1. The main character is a complete ass to most people around him. He cheats on his mostly-girlfriend, screws over half his teammates, fights with them after he screws them over, gets wasted drunk twice, and the only consequence he sees is feeling stupid. He’s a middle class jerk with no consequences for his actions. Yes, most boys do stupid things. That’s part of learning. But when we read stories of these antics, I expect true consequences. His constant high-fiving jock attitude for all his antics and getting away with them didn’t help me like Winger any better.
2. The ending (And I’m going to try to do this without giving anything away). Not so much that it ended the way it did or that the lesson wasn’t perfect. It was. And it ended mostly the way it should. It’s that it happened so damn fast. Part of me understands. Winger is a jock boy at heart so the tough subjects are tough to talk about. But that doesn’t mean you can just wait until the last few pages to swing the door open, let the bulls come charging in, give your moral of the story, and drop the mic. There was zero building to the climax. This is where Looking for Alaska and Winger differ…and disappointingly.
Conclusion: Winger is a great book for boys who don’t usually read. Actually, so is Grasshopper Jungle. Andrew Smith is like if Vonnegut and Chuck Palenchuk (Fight Club?) were one person. It’s about the in your face writing with a touch of dark pithy social commentary. Still, for the readers Smith is going for, I think he hits a home run here.