Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Last Exit to Normal by Michael Harmon

“The decoder card to the universe wasn’t included in the box of cereal God gave humanity. At the ripe old age of seventeen, I’d at least figured out that no matter how hard you try to guess what happens next, you can’t. Life wasn’t set up that way and we don’t like it, so we spend most of our time running around like a bunch of dimwits.”

Ben’s voice won me over right from the opening sentence. He’s brash, outspoken, angry, but deep down a profoundly decent human being. It all started 3 years previous when his dad came home, announced he was gay and pretty much told everyone to deal with it. A difficult thing for Ben to understand, made more difficult by his mother packing her bag and abandoning him, and made still more difficult by the homophobes at school who kick his ass for having a gay dad.

After a few rough years, Ben’s dad and boyfriend decide to move the family to small town Montana for a fresh start. A decision that Ben is sure will equal disaster (he fears that small towns equal small minds). Of course Rough Butte is not what he expected. Sure there are plenty of rednecks, but there is also community and a surprising amount of acceptance. Add in a few subplots that allow character growth and introspection and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what to expect.

What makes this book a step above others is that there isn’t any easy resolution to the anger and tension between Ben and his father. Ben feels that he was a mistake – born to a father that shouldn’t have had children, his dad feels as though Ben hates him because he is gay, and they don’t have the skills to communicate. Their relationship is believably strained with two flawed people who are neither right nor wrong in their positions. Very much like real life, emotions mess up any chance for a logical appraisal of the situation and they find it difficult to get past, well, the past.

This is a really solid piece of writing. Teens will enjoy Ben’s voice, they’ll enjoy that he’s smart, tough, but not infallible. I’m always happy when I read something that will appeal to boys and isn’t science fiction or comic books.

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