Review Hacklet: Boy 21 by Matthew Quick ~ The Little Prince in Basketball Shoes


The cover is weird before you read it but becomes perfect after you’re done


Summary: The book is narrated by Finley, a white Irish kid in a rough, mostly black town close to Philly. He lives for basketball, even though as point guard, he’s a role player and doesn’t get the big scores. He’s a quiet, reserved kid, just trying to keep his head down so he doesn’t get mixed up with either the Irish or black drug dealers or gangs. At the start of his Senior year, his coach puts him in charge of a new kid, Russ, who’s moved to town to live with his grandparents after his parents were murdered. Russ was a highly recruited basketball star out in California, but after his parents’ murder he’s become withdrawn and eccentric, calling himself Boy21 and claiming to be from outer space. Boy21 ominously believes he will soon return to space and rejoin his parents.

Finley accepts Boy21’s eccentricities and heeds his coach’s command to help him and convince him to play basketball again, even though it might mean that Finley would lose his spot on the team to the much more talented Russ. The book is really all about Finley trying to walk many thin lines without making a dangerous error: helping Boy21 without fearing the possible competition; being friends with a black guy while living in the Irish part of town; balancing dating his longterm girlfriend Erin with dedicating himself fully to basketball; staying on the good side of the gangsters and mobsters without being pulled into that life. These razor-edged tightrope walks and the shortness if the book makes this a gripping, tense read.

1 heart  I loved this book from the beginning, but then got mad at it and then got un-mad at it and then I loved it again. I was mad because I was feeling clever about 40% of the way in, when I made the connection between the character Boy21 and the Little Prince, but then about 60% of the way through the book, one of the characters referenced The Little Prince and I felt less clever, and just a bit anxious about Boy21’s detached claims that he would soon be leaving planet Earth for the cosmos. I was also worried the book would end up being a blatant adaptation of Saint-Expury’s work. I started waiting for the metaphorical snake. But it soon became clear that the author was only giving the slightest homage to The Little Prince, and the story went in its own odd direction. So in the end, I got to feel clever again for noticing the connection and gratified by the story’s surprise ending.

I loved the eccentricities of Boy21 and how Finley easily takes them in stride, and loved seeing their friendship develop. There was a lot at stake, both in the present of the narrative and because of the brutal back stories of the characters that you find out later. I loved the unpredictable nature of the story, and the quirks of all the characters. Some people seemed turned off by the “weird” hard-to-classify nature of this book, but that’s exactly what made me love it.

1 scissorsThe only thing I couldn’t quite buy was that Finley and Erin had been dating for years, and were Seniors, but seemed to not have proceeded past making out and holding hands. It’s not that I think this was bad, it just seemed a little unrealistic that two fit, athletic teens who love each other wouldn’t be having a more intimate relationship. In some ways, I think it was a fine choice to not have that be a distracting element to the story, but it was just a little difficult to believe and made me wonder why Quick made this choice. We know that Finley is repressing a lot of emotions, but is this supposed to part of it? Or was Quick trying to make a point about how Erin and Finley were best friends first, and that their friendship was the most important element of their relationship? I actually did feel taken out of the story a little by what I perceived as something so unrealistic.


On Orphans: A review of Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, and a meditation on why we read about orphans


Much Dickensian

Some redeeming elements; major hacking needed

Some redeeming elements; major hacking needed

What is it with me reading orphan books lately? In the past 6 months I’ve read: The Orphan Master’s Son, The Goldfinch, The Panopticon, The Cider House Rules, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Eva Luna, and now Orphan Train.

No doubt that “orphans” has long been a popular theme in literature: Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, and, like, all of Dickens’ protagonists***.

(*** one or more of these books were referenced in almost all of the orphan-themed books I read in the last 6 months)

What is it about orphan tales? Is it that we feel instant empathy for an orphan character? Orphan tales are usually survival tales: does this feed in with our recent collective desire to read post-apocalyptic stories? Is Dickens now the new old thing? (see: newly published book Havisham. Maybe we’re moving on from Austen reworkings to Dickens). Are we nervous about our own survival? Do we identify with feeling alone in the world, even if we do have family and friends? I don’t know.

The thing with orphan stories, though, is that their built in pathos has to be dealt with delicately by the author. Orphan stories can quickly go maudlin, or become gratuitous in depictions of deprivation. Orphan stories a la Dickens often have outrageous coincidences, as if the orphan’s hard luck is being compensated by divine fate. And too often, orphan stories feature the cruelest of villains, their inward hatefulness reflected by the ugliest of physical features. I think in some ways that all orphan stories are at their heart fairy tales: the lost hero or heroine, the evil villain, the fairy godmother or -father, the magic of coincidence, the bag of gold at the end of the journey. It takes a gifted writer to write an orphan story that goes beyond this fairy tale trope, and beyond its own plot to tell a story that has a greater commentary on life and how we live it.

The Orphan Master’s Son, The Goldfinch, The Panopticon, The Cider House Rules, The Miseducation of Cameron Post,, and Eva Luna all pulled this off, especially the first three on this list. Orphan Master and Goldfinch  especially so, and I hurtled along with the story, gripped by the characters and what the story was trying to say, and almost didn’t notice the outrageous Dickensian coincidences. Maybe that’s because the characters felt real, three-dimensional, complicated, flawed. Maybe because the book did not feel like a plot delivery device, constructed by an author sitting at a table. I lived in those novels.

Not so with Orphan Train. (funny, I almost mistyped orphan as Oprah there…hmmm). Many of the good characters have golden hair and attractive features. The scenes of depravity feel out of tone with the rest of the book’s narrative style, as if the author is going for a modern edginess but is not really comfortable doing so. The narration flips between modern day third person and 1920s first person, both in the present tense, and this narrative choice especially did not work for me. The 1920s first person present narration was particularly weird: a nine year old girl narrating what is happening with the voice of her older self looking back, yet it is really meant to be present tense without the removal of time. The plot was wholly predictable, the orphan fairy tale structure from beginning to end.

It is not a “bad” book. The writing flows well, and you feel sympathy for the two main protagonists (how could you not? they’re orphans). But Orphan Train felt like a ride that you got on and knew exactly where it was going.