Monday, July 7, 2008
What Happened by Peter Johnson
Posted by Alex
I'm supposed to review What Happened by Peter Johnson, and I will,in a sense. There are two ways of looking at this book, and perhaps a lot of the books covered here: the pure literary opinion, and the perspective of our hypothetical, all-purpose teen boy. Sometimes they may converge; in this case, I suspect they're a total dichotomy.
The book, by an award-winning poet, is described as a "prose poem." The nameless sixteen-year-old narrator initially tells us, "if my story seems erratic it's because I think that way," then relates the night he, his brother and two friends run over a man during a snowstorm. The rich kid driving, Duane, wants to pretend it didn't
happen; the narrator and his older brother Kyle are more conflicted. For soap-opera color, Kyle is dating Duane's sister Emily, on whom the narrator also has a crush, and Duane's rich, powerful father once romanced the narrator's late mother.
This is a thin book--"sparse" being the positive spin--and yet it spends most of its time away from its central dilemma. The narrator is on psychiatric meds, although his exact diagnosis seems unknown to him, and he's prone to digression. He's extremely passive, and ultimately the story resolves with no direct input from him; he even sleeps through the moment the other characters make a crucial decision. In fact, the story only tangentially affects him, since it's his older brother who's in actual danger.
As I read this, I tried to imagine a teenage boy's response to it. First there's the cover image of a very feminine young man, eyes closed and wispy blond hair to his shoulders. The first thing I thought of (and this may say more about me than the book) is that What Happened would detail a gay teen's struggle with his sexuality.
As it turns out, this cover (or this interpretation of it) is completely off-base. I wonder how many young men, some of them doubtless struggling with their own sexual identity, would avoid the book simply because of this (or alternatively, read it for that reason and be disappointed).
Then there's the style. Calling something a "prose poem" is pretty daunting if you want teens to read it. I've always thought the term "prose poem" was a bit arch anyway, a way of saying "pretentious" without using the word. And since the story is pretty simple and limited to the narrator's scattershot perspective, the author has
plenty of opportunities to make observations on philosophy, morality and the vagaries of self-knowledge. But will the intended audience of ages 13 and up care to wade through this?
That's where I think the book fails. It may be about teenage boys, it may be aimed at teenage boys, but I can't imagine most teenage boys reading it. It's too slow, it's too diffuse, and ultimately it features characters with whom most boys won't want to identify. For a short, slender book it's a slog at first, and while it does pick up steam toward the end when real conflict occurs, the fact that the conflict happens to other characters and not our dazed narrator robs it of its immediacy.
Interesting in the abstract, thin in the concrete, I think most teenage boys would not be terribly entertained by What Happened.