Saturday, January 23, 2010

Book Review: The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp

Book: The Spectacular Now
Author: Tim Tharp
Published: 2008
Source: Local Library

Sutter Keely isn't just the life of the party, he is the party. He's the one who'll jump in the pool with all his clothes on or start belting out Dean Martin songs to counteract the cheese-headed pop they've been playing all night. So what if he starts drinking several hours before the party starts? He just likes to be fortified. A little whiskey and 7-Up in the morning never did anyone any harm, right? You only live once, might as well live in the now.

But as the end of senior year bears down on him, now is quickly turning into the future. What will happen to Sutter when the party ends?

I can't remember the last book I finished where I wanted to reach into the pages and give the main character such an almighty smack upside the head. I spent most of the novel in a mounting state of fury with Sutter and his apathy, and it's a testament to Tharp's fine skill at balancing this frustration with Sutter's extreme charm and longing for something meaningful that this book didn't hit the wall. I heard a lot of talk about Sutter's drinking, but to me, this wasn't a book about alcoholism. There aren't any scenes with DT's, pink elephants, or an overwhelming thirst that will get him through the next minute. While he's clearly headed that way, Sutter's real problem is that he wants everything and everyone to stay the same, because he knows how to handle the same. He knows who he is in high school--fun lovin' Sutter, life of the party. He has no idea what he is without the party, and doesn't want to look too closely, because he might discover that he's nothing.

Strangely for such an apathetic guy, Sutter is always helping people. His first action in the novel (other than pouring himself a drink) is to pick up a six-year-old hitchhiker and take him back home. He's always got a project, some way of making somebody else's life better, from setting up his best friend to boosting the class nerd's confidence. While this makes him a marvelously sympathetic character, this habit has a darker side. If he didn't have a project, he would have to stop and look at his own life, which is surely the biggest project he could ever undertake. But he won't. You know this throughout the book, and even at the end where another author would have a road-to-Damascus moment, Tharp acknowledges that Sutter just doesn't have the guts to change himself, even though he could.

At the same time, Tharp clearly shows why Sutter might be afraid of the future. He has precious few examples of a meaningful life ahead of him. What's he going to do, marry a vapid person with a nice house like his sister and lead her empty life? Stay in his job at a slowly dying menswear store? Join the military and be blown up in Afghanistan? Yippee. Where's that clipboard? Sign me up! More, Sutter has nobody to show him what he could be as a man. Every man in this novel is absent, either physically or emotionally--from his blustery stepfather to his neo-yuppie brother-in-law to his father, MIA since the divorce. Even minor adult male characters are less than emulatable. The one exception is his boss, who even though he's stuck in the same dead-end job as Sutter, has a family he adores.

Toward the end, Tharp balances this teen angst with multiple chances to change. Sutter's girlfriend wants to move to St. Louis and go to college together. His boss promises not to lay him off if he can promise to stay sober at work. But Sutter turns away from these lifelines, unwilling to try. Even the events that might shock him out of his apathy--finally meeting his absent father, having a car accident that hurts his beloved girlfriend--don't work. If Sutter put in a little effort, he could have the meaningful life he longs for, but this is a boy who isn't willing to work at an algebra set because he feels as if he'll just fail anyway.

This book had the most depressing ending I have ever read in a teen novel, and that includes the ones where kids throw themselves under trains. I say this because even though Sutter is alive at the end, you can see his future in Technicolor, and it's not pretty. He's not throwing himself under a train, he's letting inertia drag him toward the tracks. The end of high school is a scary time for most kids, who will see both their own fears and the need to face them in Sutter's story.


Ms. Yingling said...

Wow. I was alarmed at the drinking at the beginning, so didn't continue reading. Now I'm glad I didn't. Thanks for the honest review.

Paige Y. said...

Your review was excellent, but I can't say that I want to read the book. I prefer a book with at least a little bit of hope in the end.

MotherReader said...

I enjoyed your review and I can see where it's depressing having seen people in my time who were just like this. One thing that stood out for me was that he takes on projects to avoid dealing with the bigger issue in his life, and I've seen that in so many adults that it hit home.

I'm not sure I'm ready to read the book in the dreary days of winter.

Patti said...

This book left me so down after I finished it. Amazing writing though. Great review! You put into words many things I thought but couldn't express.

Lenore said...

The cover always cracks me up there's that!

Kristi said...

This is another book on my extremely long TBR list that I've been reluctant to pick up, and I think you've just quantified the reasons why I'm wary of reading it. I suppose I'll get to it eventually.

Bibliovore said...

I do think it was a great book, well worth reading, but definitely not for middle-schoolers and not if you're having a dreary time right now. As a character study, it was just amazing, if depressing. Sigh.

NatalieSap said...

Wonderful review, but how depressing the book does sound. It's nice to know which books I can safely pass without feeling guilty, and this is one of them!

By the way, I've given you an award over at my blog. Check it out. :)