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01 March 2012

Ahh, To Be Young Adult, Full of Self-Doubt, Excessive Modesty and Self-Absorption

I rarely recommend a title which has just debuted in hardcover, mainly because they are okay, not fantastic, not "keepers."  Yet, I recommend Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, because I can't wait to tell you about it.  You can wait for the paperback edition. For young adults, instead of paying $17 for the hardback, you can pay $9 for a trade paperback.  Oh, excuse me, you could pay $8.99 instead of $16.95.

No, I did not include the previous paragraph with my submission to IndieNext Picks (but I still didn't get quoted).

The publisher's promotional natter has the author "debuting," instead of his book, but I bet he has never called himself an "aspiring" writer.  Me and Earl and the Dying Girl so pretentiously lacks pretension that I forgive its pretensions. Narrator (and "author of this inane book") Greg Gaines preempts the reader's expectations by telling us how horrible a book he has written. We get the impression that Greg has written this book as a purging. It is like a hairshirt or a self-flagellation. Yet, as painful as he depicts high school, I see the sadness. Greg begins with a long explanation of how he has survived until senior year of high school by not befriending anyone, not standing out, not being in any group so that he cannot be shunned by any. And then, his well-ordered life, everything he has worked towards, is toppled when his mother forces him to spend time with a childhood acquaintance who has been diagnosed with leukemia.

I understand his false sense of security, of a world that seems orderly but fragile in its balancing act. Greg knows how shallow and selfish this world is which he has constructed.  He sees it and he cannot believe he is so fake.  He cringes at how little he is, and I cringe with him.  Moreover, I laughed at the strangest moments -- not the laughter of Rachel Kushner's honking, but a silent, almost doubling over which was probably good for my muffin top ("engaging the core," I think the online video trainers would say). The painful, cringing parts are self-evident, but I cannot even explain the funny parts. As I read, I wonder whether my grandson and filmmaker Jack Dunphy would enjoy reading the book, or is he beyond these pretensions? Andrews dedicates the book to Schenley, "which is not Benson," although it quite clearly was the model for Benson High School, an inner-Pittsburgh public school nestled between "affluent Squirrel Hill and non-affluent Homewood."  An online search reveals the following quote:
Schenley has to be one of the most diverse schools in the Pittsburgh area.
Sadly, it graduated its last class in the spring of 2011, closed its doors and has the historic landmark building up for sale.  This must be kind of a second death for alumnus Andrews.

And Earl, I love Earl. Who is the inspiration for Earl in Jesse Andrews's life? Earl comes from a situation I have never known yet could see so clearly through Mr Andrews/Greg Gaines's eyes and pen. Earl is a man-boy who knows his world and knows how he and how his relationship with Greg fit into that world.  He is the most real person in the book -- or, at least the most real-sounding, and the most mature.  Earl delivers the "feel good" lecture of the book, about how whiny Greg is and while Greg is so hung up about how others perceive him, he cannot see how genuine Rachel is and Rachel is dying.  In retrospect, Greg sees and knows that even Earl's (almost literal) beating of him did not make him fully realize the extent of Rachel's friendship or of her illness.  And then, after her death, when the reader wants a "feel good" ending, Earl comes to forefront again, telling Greg that he cannot do things for others; he has to do them for himself.  Unlike "the better person" Earl, Greg sees this as license to break his promise to Rachel about applying to film schools and continue to founder aimlessly, even flunking out of freshman semester at University of Pittsburgh -- the "bigger, dumber sibling of Carnegie Mellon," because it is easier.  And, in finishing this book as the explanation of all that has come to pass, Greg merely reveals his continued immaturity, like how the nice girl with the big boobs is going out with one of the most unlikely classmates and not a Pittsburgh Steeler as he thought.  "So I guess there's a chance I could have gotten with her that whole time, if I spent more time working it in the cafeteria..."  But then, there are those glimpses of self-doubt, excessive modesty and slight maturity:  "Although on second thought, there's no way that's true."

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