Scott Blagden takes Holden Caulfield into a 21st century Catholic orphanage in his book Dear Life, You Suck. Cricket Chirpen’s life sucks. Not only does he have to deal with a name like Cricket Chirpen (when introduced to his girlfriend’s parents, the stepmom thinks she’s being punk’d), he also has a horrible past and zero prospects for the future. He is constantly getting suspended at school for fighting, and despite the efforts of some of the adults in his life, he believes his best prospect after school is to become a drug dealer.
Despite Cricket’s propensity for getting into trouble, he is clearly a good kid at heart. He cares for the Little Ones, younger kids at his orphanage who look up to him, and despite grumbling about it, enjoys entertaining them with wild stories. His crush on Wynona Bidaban is described with hilarious bluntness — Blagden doesn’t shy away from describing Cricket’s poorly timed erections — and his disbelief at her niceness to him is endearing. I love the “Dear Life” letters; they revealed much more about Cricket than he intended, and as such struck me as the most honest sections in the book. So there’s a lot to like in this novel. As well, in a YA book market saturated with dystopian trilogies, it’s almost refreshing to see someone writing contemporary stories with realistic characters.
That being said, there’s also nothing new about this novel. J.D. Salinger said it before, and quite frankly, said it better. Blagden creates a distinct narrative voice for Cricket, one that presumably is meant to be snappy and witty and to convey just how pissed off he is at life. Take the opening paragraphs for example:
The shrinkadinks think I have a screw loose. Ain’t playing with a full deck. Whacked-out wiring. Missing marbles.
Oh wait, I live in the north of Maine now with the moosikins and lahbstahs.
The shrinkadinks think I have a bent prop. Knows in the net. Sap in the chain. Am thin in the chowda.
Blagden certainly maintains the consistency in his narrative voice. The thing is, he falls a bit too much in love with it. Take the opening paragraphs for example. Even from the first paragraph, we get the gist, but then Blagden keeps going. He doesn’t present new information so much as show off his narrative chops. Unfortunately, Blagden doesn’t quite have the skill to get away with it. Unlike the seductiveness of repetition in A Clockwork Orange, which ensnares you so that you barely notice the same phrases are being repeated over and over again, Cricket’s repetitiveness just becomes wearying.
Even the way Cricket refers to people becomes tiresome — he gives so many multiple variations on their nicknames that it’s more him showing off how clever he is at coming up with names than any form of characterization. Poor Mother Mary for example, head of the Naskeag Home for Boys where Cricket lives, is referred to as Mother Mary Mammoth, Mother Mary Monument, Mother Mary Mad-as-Hell, Mother Mary Mockery, Mother Mary Mushroom Cloud, Mother Mary Mafia, and so on… and this is all within a single scene. We get it, Mr. Blagden, Cricket is clever. Now enough.
The other problem is despite Cricket considering a career in dealing drugs, he’s never really believable as a potential drug dealer. Blagden does such a good job depicting Cricket’s vulnerability that he never really comes off as being capable of selling drugs to children. Wisecracks, name calling, even the occasional fight aren’t quite enough, particularly when it’s made so clear that the fight was triggered by a need to protect a younger, weaker boy. Certainly, Cricket has his dark side — he continues the fight past the point of self-defence because of some deep seated anger we don’t fully understand till the end — but overall, his image is that of a troubled teen looking for help. And perhaps because of the strength of his support system — Mother Mary, the Caretaker, his English teacher Moxie, even the Little Ones who look up to him — Cricket’s story lacks the sense of desperation that would have made his story urgent.
Instead, we have a boy that tries too hard to be bad ass, and a novel that tries too hard to stand out. Dear Life, You Suck is actually a pretty good read. Because of the language, it’s a bit hard to get through, but still worth the effort. The moments of tenderness stand out, and the insights revealed by Cricket’s “Dear Life” letters are right on the mark. It’s Catcher in the Rye redux, and while the original is vastly superior, in my opinion, Dear Life, You Suck is a sharp, funny argument that life, in fact, does not quite suck after all.
Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.