The Body of Christopher Creed, by Carol Plum-Ucci
Steepleton could have dealt with a runaway, a suicide, an abduction, or even a murder. Other towns survive them. But there are two things our town couldn't cope with, the first being a very strange mess that occurs when the weirdest kid in town suddenly disappears. He's gone, but his weirdness seems to linger. It grabs at the most normal and happy kids, like some sort of sick joke. And then it's those people who are acting weird. The other thing the town can't face up to is the black hole itself—the thing that comes out of nowhere and eats a kid alive and doesn't leave a hair from his head.
After the events of his junior year, Victor "Torey" Adams transferred to a boarding school to ride out the remainder of his high school career. He's spent the school year working to fit in—getting used to not being on the football team, not having a basement band, making new friends when he's used to being in class with people he's known all his life—and he's spent it trying to avoid thinking about junior year.
But now he's ready.
The Body of Christopher Creed showcases a strong exploration of social and economic class in a small town, and it has an effectively claustrophobic atmosphere. The depiction of the voyeuristic tendencies of close neighbors and the unpacking of the public's fascination with other peoples' tragedies are both strong elements as well.
Pretty much everything else I have to say is less positive.
This book was originally published in 2000, so some of it is understandably dated: words like 'online' and 'email' are hyphenated (on-line, e-mail)—which makes the tech portions of the story read somewhat like that Buffy episode about Willow's internet boyfriend who turns out to be a robot—and Torey has a pager. A PAGER! (I feel like younger readers might need that one explained, like before they updated Are You There God, It's Me Margaret's period supplies.)
But the dated feel goes deeper than that, because of passages like this, that read like something from the 60s or 70s:
I don't let myself get too crazy when people start asking questions, like, "So why'd you come as a senior?" or, "You could pass for a model if you'd cut that hair, so why don't you?" It's always the girls who ask the stuff. Most guys are content to accept you just because you're cool and don't make waves. (2)
...and dialogue like this, that feels both unbelievable AND dated:
"Dude, you're like a walking conscience." Ryan cackled. "Don't be so glum. ..." (24)
"So we don't think he was joking about the first thing, either! I'm just trying to save your ass! You've got to tell me that Richardson merely told you, and you thought he was joking—" (209)
Words like 'glum' and 'merely' in supposedly contemporary, informal conversation—yes, even in 2000—stick out like sore thumbs. I also questioned the characters' regular use of the euphemism "the nasty". First, a little goes a long way with a phrase like that, and it shows up a LOT. And second, given that most of the characters had no qualms about dropping the f-bomb elsewhere, I struck me as odd that they'd all bend over backwards to avoid using it in that context. Relatedly:
I guessed that was okay, except rumor had it that Ali was, as the saying goes, "passing through high school on her back." (32)
I was not aware that was a saying. If it is/was, gross. BONUS POINTS, though for the phrases 'swoonbag love machine' (44) and 'turbo slut-bag' (160), both of which made me laugh out loud.
SPEAKING OF THE WORD SLUT. The slut-shaming in this book, holy cow. Yes, there is an overall arc about reputation and assumption, and yes, it is in keeping with the character's voice:
I couldn't figure out why she was bringing this kind of talk down on her head. I mean, every school had a few girls who go down like subs, and we had more besides Ali. But mostly they were bigmouths and kind of nasty looking, the kind who would do anything to get somebody to go out with them. Ali was cute, could catch anybody she wanted to, if she wanted to. It didn't make sense. (56)
But any growth that we see in Torey's attitude about girls and sex (and girls who have sex) is ultimately undermined by the storyline and various character arcs. For example: There's an adult male character who is revealed to have had multiple affairs, and his marriage falls apart, yes, but the characters don't make moral judgments about him the way that they do about every single female character who is (or who is assumed) to be promiscuous. Compounding that is the fact that in each case, the female characters who engage in promiscuous sexual activity are doing it (har har) because of either emotional trauma or substance abuse, whereas the male characters are doing it just because... dudes be dudes? So the underlying message there is that there's Something Wrong with women who enjoy sex, while again, dudes be dudes.
And this bit was flat-out horrifying:
"I got this thirteen-year-old sister, Darla. Something up with her—I don't know what—but she turned thirteen and I couldn't keep her off her back to save my life. I threatened her; I told her I'd beat the shit out of her next time I caught her with some boon. One day I pinned her neck to the wall. She'd been with Billy Everett, Dallas's little brother. He's already got one kid, and he's only thirteen. I said to her, 'Darla, why you so determined to make yourself a mama?' You know what she says to me? She says, 'I just like to feel crazy.' I wasn't thinking, you know. I told her, 'I'll show you crazy,' and almost knocked her head clear through the refrigerator. ..." (88)
That monologue is from the Bad Boy With A Heart Of Gold Character, one of the HEROES of the book. Torey doesn't question or flinch at that story, even to himself, even later on. It's just... there. And then there's this passage, where Torey is talking about his girlfriend's virginity:
You might wonder why a guy would go out with a girl like that. I don't know why.
I knew I liked how people looked her up and down and then stared at me like I was the luckiest guy on earth. They didn't know we weren't having sex; it was like our big secret. (53)
So it's cool for guys to be having sex, but not for girls to be having sex. (I chalk people's acceptance of Leandra's assumed sexual activity up to her having sex with an acceptable partner. But as she isn't really having sex, it doesn't really do anything to change the overall messages about it in the book.) That double standard isn't a new attitude, obviously, but because the story doesn't really do anything to challenge it—beyond showing that Ali is a Nice Person, whereas Leandra isn't—it ultimately reinforces and normalizes it.
It's worth noting, too, that Torey is clearly dating Leandra because of what she does for his image, not because he particularly likes her. Something about his lack of self-awareness there—especially given that this was all written after the fact, so he's had plenty of time to process both the relationship and the break-up—doesn't entirely mesh with his supposedly introspective nature.
And then there's the cringeworthy imagery and story arc about the Lenape Indians:
"We were about twelve years old, and I was riding my bike to Ryan's and passed by that old Indian burial ground behind your house."
"Lenape Indians' burial ground. Yeah." It was in the woods out behind our property, though whether it was an actual burial ground was unproven. All we ever dug us as kids were a few arrowheads." (61-62)
Like the majority of the slut-shaming element, this thread is true to the voice of the narrator and to his likely frame of reference/knowledge base, but there is no pushback anywhere about all of the problematic stuff. No pushback about the fact that he's talking about a group of people who still exist, no pushback about the utterly terrible choice to dig around in a burial ground, no pushback/subversion in re: the use of the tired Indian Burial Ground trope. So, again: yes, it's all true to the voice, but still entirely gross.
There's also some lazy plotting—a chance encounter with a helpful psychic, a helpful gust of wind, Torey's hallucination of a Lenape man who reads a whole lot like a Magical Native, which, ew—and so all of that put together? Even accounting for its strengths, while this book was a stand-out for some audiences in 1990, it really, really does not hold up now.