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Monday, January 20, 2014

Winger by Andrew Smith

Release Date: May 14, 2013
Publisher: Simon & Schuster BFYR
Age Group: Young Adult
Format: E-book
Source: Purchased
Pages: 439
Buy: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound
Description: Goodreads
Ryan Dean West is a fourteen-year-old junior at a boarding school for rich kids. He’s living in Opportunity Hall, the dorm for troublemakers, and rooming with the biggest bully on the rugby team. And he’s madly in love with his best friend Annie, who thinks of him as a little boy.

With the help of his sense of humor, rugby buddies, and his penchant for doodling comics, Ryan Dean manages to survive life’s complications and even find some happiness along the way. But when the unthinkable happens, he has to figure out how to hold on to what’s important, even when it feels like everything has fallen apart.

Filled with hand-drawn info-graphics and illustrations and told in a pitch-perfect voice, this realistic depiction of a teen’s experience strikes an exceptional balance of hilarious and heartbreaking.

Winger reminds me of The Duff in that I really appreciated a rather minor aspect of the novel. In The Duff, I enjoyed the abundance of cursing. There’s also a plentiful amount of cursing in Winger, but I was more elated about rugby being a central part of the story. As someone who doesn’t understand the American obsession with football, it’s always good to see its manlier and more interesting cousin get its due.

Also much like The Duff, Winger has characters and interactions that I almost always totally believe. The playful insults, where even the most foul-mouth or egregious things act as strange bonding moments, perfectly capture the the way that dudes bond. The novel also captures the way that one guy can absolutely hate another guy personally, but both can still have a strange respect, and almost admiration for, each other. All of the interactions we actually see in the novel are completely believable. My only issues are with a few we don’t see that also end up being the crux of the novel’s final section.

As much as I had to admit it, the internal monologue in Winger is a frighteningly accurate  portrait of a 14-year-old boy. Constant thoughts of sex? Check. Being pretty sure you, and only you, are the only loser at school? Check. Inability not to think that every vaguely attractive female is a 5-out-of-5 Habaneros on the At Least Ryan Dean West Created Better Names Scale? I’m sad to admit it, but yes.

I have zero complaints about the novel’s first three parts. The style and voice are perfect. The characters are all likable, even when they’re jerks, and the interactions are believable. The pacing is brisk: there are zero wasted pages. The plot is always moving and I was always chuckling. The first three chapters are just fun. If the novel reached its climax at the school dance and ended up being a funny story about realizing that being a jerk doesn’t mean you’re growing up or that you’re standing up for yourself, I would have had zero complaints.

I’m still not even sure that I have complaints; I just don’t know how I feel about the final section. In terms of style and execution, I thought the section was fantastic. There are back-to-back three-sentence chapters that perfectly capture West’s reaction and making the reader feel just as surprised and heartbroken as West. Some of the passages are exceedingly well done. One that’s stuck in my brain is the bluntness of the following, which captures how arbitrary the whole thing is: “They got drunk. They were mad. They beat him until he stopped being Joey.” Even the chapter headings change from numerics to topics.

While I’m not going to disparage how the plot shift was handled stylistically, I still don’t know how I feel about the final section. The whole shift in tone and subject material felt like it came from out of left field, even though, looking back, some of the seeds were there. Maybe that was the point: the suddenness with which things can change.

Ryan Dean thinks his lit teacher is stupid for thinking everything boils down to sex. Winger thinks everything boils down to this one thing that people can’t see past when they look at you. I don’t think it’s as simple as either of them makes it out to be. What happened to Joey was about sex, but also about Casey not being able to give up the one thing everyone saw when they looked at him.

I can see the reason for the inclusion of the final section. It allows the author to show both a positive and negative end to the same essential story. While I’m still not totally sure it needed to be included, it did little to affect my overall fondness for the novel. At worst, it gave me something to keep pondering after its final page, much like An Abundance of Katherines and The Duff, which it has no question joined among the favorite novels I’ve read for Wastepaper Prose.

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