Reality Boy by A. S. King
Published 2013 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
353 pages; YA realistic fiction
The first half of this book positively vibrates with Gerald's rage. It is electric, and it reminded me how satisfying anger can be--in the moment. When you are unleashing your anger, you feel powerful, even if after the rage has passed you are humiliated by how out of control you actually were. Anger can be intoxicating and addictive.
Gerald has been abused, ignored, and gaslighted (gaslit?) since birth, and his rage is well earned. So much has been denied to him that as a reader, you can completely get behind the fact that he bit a chunk out of a classmate's face in 8th grade.
But at the same time, you know that's pretty messed up. I would not want Gerald in my class, let alone in my family. He is learning to control his rage, and articulates pretty clearly the various work-arounds he's developed for himself, most of which involve trying to live in a state of total numbness as much as possible. Still, the great journey of this book is not the road trip, but his growth from a young man who has learned to keep his anger in a cage to one who is able to actually confront the source and thus start moving beyond it.
I was a little confused when reading at how he talked about Roger, his anger management coach. Who is this guy? Why isn't he a "real" therapist? After I finished the book, I realized that this was yet another example of his mom setting him up for failure. She had to go through the motions of getting him help for his alleged problems, but she did so in the least effective way possible.
As a parent, this book was tough to read. The mom is wrong, wrong, wrong. And yet--if your beloved first born is a monster, what IS the right way to respond? The dad was wrong too--but how do you choose between supporting your wife or your kid or your other kids? I've got one kid that sucks up a lot more of our time and attention than the other. Neither my husband nor I handle it well all the time. I feel guilty for not protecting my "easier" child from the chaos; I feel guilty for not parenting my son with more patience and skill; I feel guilty for not being on the same page as my husband. It's not that easy. Still--it's not as freaking hard as Gerald's family made it out to be either.
It's interesting to me that many reviewers were really off-put by the whole Crapper aspect of Gerald's personality. There was so much more going on here. And as anyone who's ever had a cat knows, crapping in the wrong place sends a crystal clear message. I saw it as demonstrating the pure animal rage and complete helplessness that Gerald experienced, and I didn't dwell on imagining the visuals.
The romance--I could take it or leave it. Hannah is no manic pixie dream girl, or rather, she begins as one, but as soon as Gerald actually starts interacting with her, that bubble bursts, and she becomes an actual human being. She seemed like she might be an interesting person in her own right, but this is very much Gerald's book, and she was really just there to be a catalyst for him finally figuring out some of his stuff. In this regard, I was reminded of Everybody Sees the Ants, which also featured a young woman who prodded the protagonist to grow as a person, without the book being very romantic. Sure, Gerald and Hannah do have a romantic relationship, which is important to the book, but it's not the kind of romance that gets people talking OTPs or Team This Guy.
And Tasha--woah, Tasha. Gerald's big sister has joined a special group (along with Dolores Umbridge and the daughter-raping racist in TKAM) of characters who are disturbingly real in the very awfulness. Still, given that she is dealing with mental illness, I almost wonder if Gerald's mom isn't more truly evil, since she, presumably, had more choice in how she acted.
The whole reality show aspect was an interesting premise, and we sure learned a lot about Gerald's family from the memories of the filming, but while King was certainly making some sharp criticism of both the industry and the viewers, the thing that pulled me in was Gerald's voice, Gerald's struggles, and Gerald's growth. A. S. King's books punch me right in the gut.
If you've read this, do you think Tasha or Gerald's mom is more awful? What the hell was up with the whole circus thing? And am I the only chubby middle aged reader who now wants a punching bag?