Me: Man, it's a good thing I didn't know what this book was about before I picked it up.
Josh, in the other room: Are you crying?
Me: OH YEAH.
Leonard Peacock's plan for his eighteenth birthday: Go to school with his grandfather's WWII P-38 handgun, give birthday gifts to his four friends, kill Asher Beal, and then kill himself.
It's a sob-inducing book about a boy who's suicidal; about a boy who's been failed again and again by the adults in his life; about an invisible boy in acute pain. He's desperate to be seen and heard, but he's terrified, too. We see all of that play out over the course of this day: we see people fail him, and we see him shy away from the few people who DO see him, who DO try to help.
It's fair to call this an Important Book—Matthew Quick gives voice, heart, and soul to a boy who could easily be just another blip on the nightly news—it's impossible not to empathize with Leonard, and most readers will go further than that: they'll like him, and root for him to push up and through and out. And even though we never really get to know Asher Beal, even though he is guilty of something heinous, he's like Leonard: he's a boy in acute pain who's been failed by the adults in his life.
It's an entirely honest, frank It Gets Better story: there are no platitudes:
"My life will get better? You really believe that?" I ask, even though I know what he will say—what most adults would feel they have to say when asked such a question, even though the overwhelming amount of evidence and life experience suggests that people's lives get worse and worse until you die. Most adults aren't happy—that's a fact.
But I know it will sound less like a lie coming from Herr Silverman.
"It can. If you're willing to do the work."
"Not letting the world destroy you. That's a daily battle."
Leonard is a thoughtful, curious, observant guy, and while those are positive qualities, they also allow him to empathize with other peoples' pain, and to internalize it. He's heard the It Gets Better stories, but—as that passage makes clear—he's also noticed that there are a whole lot of miserable adults out there.
And you know what? He's right. There isn't some magical switch that gets flipped when you become an adult, and there are many adults who are unhappy and unfulfilled by and in their relationships, their families, their jobs. I dealt with the garden variety I Don't Connect With My Peers angst in high school—nothing even close to what Leonard is struggling with, though comparing reasons for our personal pain is never productive—and I STILL count myself lucky, every single day, that I did eventually Find My People, that I am so happy and fulfilled by and in my marriage, my family, my job. Because I see a lot of people out there who aren't.
It's devastating, it's hopeful, it's honest. Leonard could easily be 2013's Melinda Sordino or John Gallardi, Jr. or Keir Sarafian—his voice is that distinct, that raw, and that memorable. And, as I said, it's an ultimately hopeful story: among other things, it shows the sort of difference one person can make by reaching out—if the person he's trying to help is ready and willing to reach back.
Book source: ILLed through my library.