Josh Swensen has a secret. As secrets go, I suppose there are are worse things to withhold. But then, smart though he may be, Josh could never have predicted how far things would go.
Slip on your Gap jeans, your Nike T-shirt, your Reeboks—or maybe even your Cons if you think that makes you cool and ironic in a Kurt Cobain kind of way. Grab your Adidas backpack, ride to school on your Razor, drink your Poland Spring, eat your PowerBar, write a paper on your iMac, slip on your Ralph Lauren windbreaker. Buy the latest CD from Tower, check the caller ID to see who’s on the phone, eat your Doritos, drink your Coke. Stare at the TV till you’re stupefied.
Is there any time of the day when we’re not being used and abused by the advertising companies?
Who knows why some things take off? Pet Rocks, Crazy Bones, Hula-Hoops? Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Sometimes the culture just grabs on to something and pulls. And pulls and pulls and pulls. It makes no sense; there's no reason for it. If there had been warning signs, maybe I would have noticed. (p. 83)
It started on a whim, with the creation of a website, The Gospel According to Larry, publishing his rants about consumer culture and photographs of his few possessions (75, to be precise. He's counted). Josh initially kept his identity a secret because, well, he could. And who knew that Larry would turn into a phenomenon, inspiring people like Bono, even spawning events such as Larryfest? Whatever his motivations, Josh ultimately wants to make a difference, and there's a power that comes with being Larry, a platform that Josh can't build on his own as just another smart, unpopular kid at school. Writing as Larry, people are willing to pay attention to him in ways they never would with Josh Swensen, privileged seventeen-year-old high school senior. Josh has kept his identity as Larry a secret for so long that he has nothing to gain and everything to lose if the truth comes out. And if the person using the screen name betagold lives up to his, or her, promises, it won't be a secret any longer.
Janet Tashjian's The Gospel According to Larry was published in 2001, so a few of the references are dated, like the quote above which mentions Tower Records, and perhaps today Larry would have a blog instead of a regular website. But as I re-read the book this week, I was struck by the number of issues Josh/Larry is concerned with that are still relevant today. (I was also reminded of a fellow librarian, who told me her then-teenaged son read the book and was inspired to follow Larry's lead by not owning more than 75 items.) Likewise, the other types of problems Josh faces, including his crush on his best friend Beth, who seems to think him as just a friend, even though she kind of has a thing for Larry and wants to start a Larry-based organization at school, and his relationship Peter, his advertising executive step-father who has been raising him since Josh's mother died, remain commonplace.
In 2004, just in time for the last presidential election, Tashjian published a sequel, Vote for Larry, in which Josh is persuaded to return to the public sphere by running for president. Now, Josh may be too smart for his own good, self-absorbed, and a bit arrogant, but even he knows that he doesn't have a chance of winning the election. He and Beth, as his running-mate, finagle their way in by pointing out that while the president must be at least 35-years-old, there's nothing that stops anyone younger from running for president and raising issues the established candidates would rather avoid. Once again, however, betagold is out to sabotage Larry and his campaign. (And once again, many of the issues are still important today, particularly if you share Josh's political views.) Who can Josh trust when the stakes are even higher than they were in The Gospel According to Larry?
Josh, it must be said, is not an entirely likable character. His intentions and devotion to his causes may be admirable, but he also does some morally questionable things in the process. However, this does not make The Gospel According to Larry or Vote for Larry any less entertaining. It helps, I think, that Josh is so flawed, because a more admirable character could easily have become too perfect, too hard to root for. And despite all of Josh's dishonorable actions, I did root for him. Plus, there's still betagold. Who is betagold and why is he/she so intent on unmasking Larry? Although I hope this doesn't make me sound like a bad person, another part of the appeal of the books, at least for me, was the rather horrified anticipation of reading about the train wreck that could entangle Josh if betagold is successful.
A third Larry book, Larry and the Meaning of Life, will be published in September. And, yes, betagold is back, too.