Fantastic. I’ll admit to being nervous because I am emphatically not a fan of raunchy, R-rated American Frat comedies. There were moments, especially in the early chapters, when the authors skirted perilously close to cliché in the portrayal of Alpha Delta, but as we grow to understand, 90% of the problem is that the boys themselves have seen too many of those movies and seem intent on living up to their very questionable ideas of fun. But thanks to the authors’ overall self-consciousness, especially the clever allusions to Romeo and Juliet, the book deploys and then undermines the usual frat, excuse me Fraternity, clichés, creating a tender, insightful story about growing up, finding your place, and falling in love.
With Mark himself, the authors manage the almost miraculous balancing act of creating a character who struck me as being at once the epitome of the modern, disaffected teen and also wholly fresh and original. Crucial to this was the avoidance of the usual YA-friendly explanations for Mark’s behavior--a horrible step father, a neglectful mother, some early trauma--in favor something far more subtle and unexpected. Their restraint made Mark feel unusually real. In a lot of ways, Mark rebels because he doesn't have much to rebel against. He aggressively redefines his world to fit his need to lash out. This is a quality that we and Deacon discover gradually over time through dozens of small touches, instead of having it shoved down our throats in some tearful monologue.
All of this is good, but what made the book truly a pleasure to read was the writing. Though all of their books have been terrific, I think the Rock/Henry collaboration really comes into its own in Mark Cooper versus America. The narration is tight and energetic and perfectly infused with the highly distinctive idiom and mentality of its two MCs. I marked dozens of memorable, witty passages and phrases that just made me happy in the way that only terrific writing can:
The fraternity thing was just the latest idea out of Jim’s Top One Hundred Ways to Get Mark a Friend or Die Trying. Copyright Jim, 2013.
The guy, drunk, stumbled and went face-first into a bale of hay.
Everyone cheered. It was that sort of party.
At what point in your life did you decide you were the sort of guy who wanted to be fisted?
And then there were the moments of insight that made me know and care about these characters:
It was fine to be mocked or disliked on his own terms. But his sexual orientation was such a naked target, unfortified by nonchalance and lacking the benefit of being a persona he’d constructed. Gay Mark wasn’t sheddable like Smart-Ass Mark or Bitter-About-the-Move Mark.
Deacon smiled. He was pretty sure he was just the latest in a long line of people who had no idea what Mark Cooper was thinking.
Given that in many ways this book is the “Mark Circus,” I was gratified that I found Deacon as rich and compelling a character in his quieter way. Part of the strength of the book is that neither Deacon nor Mark could be fully realized without the other. Only Deacon recognizes the vulnerable young man beneath Mark’s smart-ass demeanor. On the flip side, Mark enables Deacon to cut loose and actually have fun. On a deeper level, Deacon is someone who needs to take care of others, and with Mark he’s finally able to do so in a way that is mutual and fulfilling instead of draining and self-sacrificing.
Perhaps the most unexpected thought I had reading the book was that this was the best YA novel I’ve read in ages. That reaction created a mini-existential crisis because a rebellious part of me, the part who remembers what it was like to be a teenager, really wants to make the argument for why this book is healthier, truer, and just plain better than most of the crap directed at teens. Depressingly, the more conventional, timid, mother-of-a-teen part of me is not quite ready to recommend a book which heavily features fisting and other kink for the under twenty crowd. My hesitations feel all the more craven and pathetic given that I know for a fact (yes I do know how to check the google search history) that my son and his friends already watch really explicit, rasty stuff online.
I won’t solve this today, but if anyone reading this decides to nominate this book for YA Book of the Year, you have my vote. In the meantime enjoy Mark et al. You’re in for a real treat.