True to my preference, I started reading knowing only who the author is and that it had a boy's face on the cover and a mysterious title. If you are more normal, and can handle knowing as much as the book blurb would tell you, keep reading.
Lucky Linderman is a 15 year old with a distant father and a swimming obsessed mother. After getting in trouble for joking about suicide at school, he instituted Operation Don't Smile Ever and six months in, has kept it up well. He is being intensely bullied by a kid he's known since first grade, the appropriately named Nader. He also has recurring dreams about his grandfather, a missing POW in Vietnam. (Side note: how weird is it that Vietnam is now a grandparent's war?) These dreams are more than dreams; he wakes up clutching physical souvenirs from his rescue attempts in the jungle. The effect is not fantasy, but magical realism.
I'll start with my complaints. He meets a girl named Ginny, who has "Manic Pixie Dreamgirl" written all over her. King subverts this trope a bit by having Ginny, despite being hella sexy, be a true friend to Lucky, the first one he's ever had. My other problem is with the bullying. Really? This kid pees on him in first grade, threatens him with rape, beats him up repeatedly--FOR YEARS--and everybody turns a blind eye? As a classroom teacher, I know how hard it is to monitor bullying, but this is way beyond shoves in the hall and jeers on the bus. It's not even like Lucky is his only victim. Adults don't really let kids run campaigns of terror against other kids; even if the bully's parents are a-holes, a teacher, or another victim's parents, would have gotten involved long ago. Bullying is real, and harmful, but exaggeratedly criminal descriptions minimize the damage bullies actually do.
The insane bullying, however, serves much the same purpose that the not-quite-dreams of rescuing Lucky's grandfather do. That is, they set up a context in which Lucky has to figure out what kind of agency he has in the world. What can he do, and what can't he do? What is worth trying to do, even if it's likely impossible, and what is best walked away from? Nader is a bad man, but what does it mean to be a good man? How do you live with the pain and the mistakes and not give up? Sometimes Lucky is thinking more clearly about these issues than any of the adults around him, and sometimes he's in a clueless teen fog. Always, his voice, struggles, and growth ring true.
I'll take another moment here to rave about the grown-ups. Besides his own parents, Lucky is influenced by his grandparents and his aunt and uncle. These are not the awesome adults of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, nor are they the missing or abusive parents of much YA. They are wounded, complex, loving and crazy. Lucky sees and learns from their mistakes and their strengths alike. Even more impressively, I have a sense of the adults as real people, living their own stories, not just foils for Lucky's development.
I am glad to have met Lucky Linderman. Four stars.
Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King
pub. date: 2011
publisher: Little, Brown, & Co.
read 7/31/15; review written 8/01/15