YA Without the Vitamins

By Maurice Mierau

I just finished reading Alan Cumyn’s YA novel Tilt. It kept me up late at night, and Cumyn made me remember what it was like to be a teenage boy, full of awkward social and sexual energy, angry and laughing and frustrated all in the same hours, frightened to death that I would never fit in, never touch a girl, never drive a car.

In the dark days of the 1970s, in the small Saskatchewan town where I went to high school, there was no YA to read. Instead I read everything indiscriminately, biographies, Top 40 lyrics, Canadian novels, T.S. Eliot, newspapers, and anything at all that had a sexy cover. John D. MacDonald had the lure of the forbidden for a bookish Mennonite teenager who didn’t realize that all MacDonald’s best tricks came from Raymond Chandler (Nightmare in Pink made a big impression on me back then). My mother liked to read Harlequins, and I tried those, but the situations and dialogue seemed ludicrous. Pseudo-literary romance was better, Frank Yerby for example. His over-wrought prose and victimized male characters, doomed to terrible love like blues singers, captured me for at least two months, before my mother embarrassed me by asking why I was hiding these books under my bed.

God knows what I would’ve done with this passage in Cumyn’s Tilt:

She wants this, he thought, a slow-motion realization. She wants this as much as I do.

Maybe more.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “You’re beautiful.”

Meaning all of him, not just the throbbing egomaniac in the centre.

He wasn’t particularly calm. Somehow her shirt came off and in bending forward for something—just to kiss his belly, actually—the pink lace fullness of her bra brushed against… things and he spurted like a fountain. Like some Yosemite geyser on a nature show.

All over her beautiful chest.

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” he said, and when he got up he was still gushing—on the bedspread, on her arm, the carpet, the floor.

“Is that…?”

She didn’t complete her question. It was all new. New in fact but he could tell she knew the facts.

The facts of life.

Sixteen-year-old boys were lousy lovers.

Stan pulled a reasonably clean gym sock from his drawer and wiped the milky glue from himself. (Tilt, Groundwood Books, pp. 240-241)

Perhaps snottily or out of sheer ignorance I was pleasantly surprised by Tilt, YA fiction that neither goes down like an aspartame-poisoned vitamin nor acts out a pale swords and sorcery re-tread. It helped that the main character was obsessed with basketball, and that there was a lot of drama in his family life. These things seemed familiar and right.

And the girl, Janine Igwash, confused about her own sexuality at first, gradually choosing Stan, who had no choosing to do, yes she’s a bit idealized, but I believed in her too. That Stan is brought up by his mom while his absent father is a flake, a dead-beat, might have been a cliché in a lesser book, but here it was perfectly realized.

I found myself moved to tears when Stan has dinner with Janine’s two-parent family, who seem so marvelously normal to him, and Janine’s cancer-stricken mother says to him “you poor boy, you’re getting the full wallop.” Escape from the wallop into the normal is what I wanted at his age, just like him, since I did not understand the banality or the impossibility of such a condition.

The wallop of emotion was based on Cumyn’s clever plotting, although a seventeen-year-old female reader reviewing the novel for The National Post said that the book “fails to deliver an emotional connection between the reader and the characters.” Maybe it’s a boy thing.

Censorship-obsessed school boards may also want to escape the wallop of Tilt, but I like to think that these kinds of novels are actually getting past the vitamin-and-God-dispensers and into the hands of actual pimply, horny, messed-up teenagers.

I shouldn’t have been surprised at the quality of this book. Alan Cumyn happens to be a respected fiction writer for adults, and his dual track career as a YA and literary novelist is common in Canada right now. Annabel Lyon and Caroline Adderson, for example, both write popular YA novels in addition to their award-winning literary fiction.

In the larger YA universe, genre books are roaring back just as they have in every market, and a lot of Old Adults like me are reading books aimed primarily at teenagers. I’m thinking of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series, which has been a huge bestseller in the US and Canada, and which my twelve-year-old son introduced me to. The Hunger Games books are dystopian science fiction, remarkably gripping and well-crafted. But what’s old is new again, since the protagonist is female and the books are darkly, intensely political; these aren’t the novels Robert Heinlein wrote for adolescent boys in the fifties, and which I read twenty years later in my teens, thrilled at his mostly mindless celebration of the technocratic state.

***

In this issue of The Winnipeg Review we take on some of the season’s new YA novels, with reviews by Kevin Marc Fournier, Harriet Zaidman, and Joan Marshal among others, and a new column, Youthful Appetite, by prolific YA writer Marsha Skrypuch. You’ll also find a feature interview with Duncan Thornton done by our own Anita Daher, excerpts from recent YA fiction, new work by poets and short story writers, and our regular fiction reviews and columns. This issue introduces another a new column, Heather Walker’s Up on the Farm, which features Heather’s adventures in organic farming on Vancouver Island. Finally, in a few weeks we should be launching the smartphone version of TWR as well. Stay tuned.

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