Friday, June 27, 2014

Boy21 by Matthew Quick

I unexpectedly took a short hiatus from updating this blog at the beginning of the year. I was on a roll with book reviews after NCTE in November. It's hard not to be. You pick up so many new books that are really some of the best being published for teenagers and you don't want to do anything else except for write about them and share information about them as much as you can. But I sort of hoarded my NCTE haul this year. By which I mean instead of reviewing the books I read, I just read them. And I know I made some sort of justification for just reading: "Think about the time you'll save by just reading and not writing a review! That's like an extra eighth of a book!" It was kind of ridiculous. And, as a result, I have a huge backlog of books that I've read over the last few months that haven't ended up on this blog, but instead have just been shelved or shared person-to-person. 

Boy 21 by Matthew Quick is one of those books that I should have written about here right away, but because it was sandwiched between my reading of two of Quick's newer publications - Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock and The Good Luck of Right Now - I didn't get to writing about it. But it is an incredible book, one that I still think about off and on, even though I read it last December. When I was standing in line at NCTE waiting to purchase Boy 21, I talked to a teacher who told me it was the most oft-stolen book in her high school English classroom. Her students loved the book so much that they would just keep it after she lent it to them. So she was replenishing her supply at NCTE, buying a few extra copies for her classroom. It's really that kind of book, one you want to keep your own copy of because even the physicality of the book is meaningful. 

Boy 21 is about Finley, nicknamed White Rabbit for being the only white kid on his high school basketball team. He wears the number 21 - it's his number, the one on the back of the jersey that gives him some way to identify who he is and what he cares about. He's in his last year of high school, and then he plans to escape Belmont, the run-down neighborhood controlled by the Irish mob, where drugs, violence, and rivalries define most of day-to-day life. But all of his plans change with the arrival of Russ, a basketball phenom who moves to Belmont after his parents are murdered. Russ only answers to the name Boy21 (21 was his former jersey number), and he's more than a little affected by his family tragedy. Finley's coach asks him to befriend Russ and help him to adjust to life in Belmont, and Finley agrees. He knows to do what his coach tells him to, and he knows that a player like Russ will help their team immensely. His friendship grows with Russ - as much as it can - but Russ is also a threat: will he take Finley's place on the team? Worse than that, will he take his number?

Quick's writing is impeccable, and the story is heartbreaking. The violence in the community is palpable, and both Finley and his girlfriend Erin are drawn into it daily, even though they don't want anything to do with it. The Irish mob is more than just background noise in this coming-of-age story. It inches its way into Finley and Erin's lives, and threatens to break them apart. Russ - Boy21 - is an amazingly conceived of character, and Finley's sense of responsibility to him (even when it means losing his place on the team) speaks so much to the type of characters Quick can write. And the small revelation at the end reverberates through everything that came before, reshaping the story. Matthew Quick continues to be one of my favorite contemporary authors, and his young adult and adult books consistently end up on my own best of lists.

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