Tuesday, August 30, 2011

“The Leftovers”

By Tom Perrotta
ISBN No. 978-0-307-35638-3

Tom Perrotta’s previous books were about high school politics (“Election”; great book, great movie), an extramarital affair (“Little Children”; great book, awful movie) and a censored sex education teacher (“The Abstinence Teacher”; great book, soon-to-be a movie). A reviewer called Perrotta “an American Chekhov” and the title fits. His view on the lives of quiet desperation being endured by your neighbours reaffirms your belief that literature still exists in a world where even the idiots from “Jersey Shore” publish books (books!) in the pursuit of media domination. It was only a matter of time before Perrotta took (another?) aim at evangelical American politics. As such, the title and plot of “The Leftovers” is depressingly appropriate. It’s vintage Perrotta, for sure (terrifically written with the most natural dialogue in books today) but it’s also an uneasy visit to Chuck Palahniuk territory (painstakingly detailed and weird for weird’s sake). When some Mapleton townsfolk suddenly disappear “POOF!”-style, the leftovers (or those “Left Behind” – to use the name of a series of movies about The Rapture made by a former child actor from TV’s “Growing Pains”) wonder if the explanation is scientific or religious, and adjust their lives belief-wise. In new mayor Kevin Garvey’s house, that includes his wife joining a homespun cult called the Guilty Remnant, his son trailing after a charlatan prophet called Holy Wayne, and the possibility of a new romance with a woman whose whole family went POOF!
What results is what usually results when a writer writes about religion – especially new sects. Perrotta spends so much text laying down – and then reminding us of - the ground rules of his story’s premise that the reader really works for that payoff at the end of an especially long paragraph about The Unburdening. Yes, it’s frequently hilarious, but sometimes you really do feel like The Leftover who “couldn’t sit still for lectures…the professor’s words blurred into a meaningless drone, a sluggish river of pretentious phrases.” Perhaps religion is already so melodramatic that it’s become un-parodyable.
Still, this is Tom Perrotta and the book is both a smart hoot and a witty indictment of the hypocrisy and stupidity that freely flows around our culture courtesy of too many internet connections, too many stupid people, and too few reliable news sources. The disappeared of the book aren’t just the figments of our religious culture, but also the smarts of a dying literature, as well as “The Disappeared” (to quote the title of Kim Echlin’s book) of far-flung exotic locales where young men and women just go missing for seemingly no reason at all and no one with any power seems to care. Perhaps the most distressing lesson learned from “The Leftovers” is how anyone envisioning a world of constructive thought, of actual ideas, a place where the Tom Perrottas of our world publish frequently and freely, is likely to be rewarded, instead, with a society still mired in the political dark ages of Fox News.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

“Money Boy”

By Paul Yee
ISBN No. 978-1-55498-093-2

It’s an unspoken rule in children’s books that no one goes all the way. Of course, in real life young people really do have sex. But first times for the poor put-upon youth of kid lit are almost always interrupted by religious guilt, fears of pregnancy, meddlesome parents or dateless sidekicks; all the better to second-guess, come to your senses, and realize you’ve got your whole life ahead of you.
Fifteen year-old Ray Liu has his whole life ahead of him too – as everyone keeps telling him. As a new immigrant to Toronto he’s still learning English. As the leader of the online game, “Rebel State,” he’s learning about honour and teamwork. As a closeted gay youth he’s learning about cultural homophobia - especially when his army veteran Dad evicts him after discovering he’s gay.
Like any young gaysian he heads to Toronto’s Chinatown. “The first time we came here,” he recalls, “I was surprised at how big this district was, full of Chinese restaurants, Chinese stores and Chinese people. I thought, if people want to do Chinese business and buy Chinese groceries, then they should stay in China!”
After he’s beaten and robbed he realizes/rationalizes that becoming a prostitute couldn’t be that bad, could it? Like an actor, athlete or model, he’s just going to use his body to make money. “I feel as though I am in a jerky fast-forward video,” he says. “Monday I get kicked out of the house. Blippety-blip. Tuesday I am homeless at a shelter. Blippety-blip. Wednesday I dine with a drag queen. Thursday I sell my body. Blippety-blip.” But will Ray second-guess himself, come to his senses, and realize he’s got his whole life ahead of him BEFORE it’s too late?
I’m not going to tell you what Ray does, but by the last third of the book he’s saying, “if the thief who stole my laptop could break into my skull and steal the last sixty minutes of my life, I would pay him well.”
After enduring the endless courtship of the vampire genre’s erotically neutered tweens (please no e-mails) it’s a pleasant surprise to read about young people who are actually interested in sex – and aware of its exploitation. Maybe Paul Yee (“Ghost Train”, “Dead Man’s Gold”) is the only writer sensitive and reckless enough to handle a reality that many parents wouldn’t want their children to know exists. He beautifully captures both the narcissism of youth (Ray is equally desperate for food, shelter and to “get back to Rebel State. Players are waiting for me to lead the fight against the guerrilla war”) as well as the cultural tyranny faced by both young immigrants and older gay men (“Younger men laughing in a circle, they’re a fortress with no door. A stranger can walk around them and around them and never find an opening”). For a book about the oldest profession seen through new eyes FOR young readers, “Money Boy” is nothing less than astonishing. It’s perhaps Yee’s best book yet.