The Last Great Getaway of the Water Balloon Boys the more I like it.
"If I'm going to tell you how I killed this kid, I can't start on the day it happened. It won't make any sense, and you'll just think I was some psycho teenage boy with glue for brains." With an opening like that the book can go one of two routes, either down the road of troubled sensationalism or not-my-fault apologia. Instead, what we get is closer to a sort of road movie, like something that might have been made by Monte Hellman or Wim Wenders.
Straight-A Charlie, about to get beat up at school for the offense of inviting the bully's girl to prom, is rescued by his ex-best friend Jake in the principal's stolen '67 Mustang. After a couple local detours to visit some dead-end friends of Jake'e, the boys find themselves on the road to bring Charlie to reconcile his relationship with his divorced father several states away. Along the way they dump the car and hitch a ride with a suicidal girl who they attempt to rescue. A few more detours, a few more slip-ups caused by Jake's devil-may-care attitude, and the boys finally make it to Denver where things don't go as Charlie had hoped for. And then there's the kid who gets shot...
Although there isn't anything startlingly new or different about this sort of story, it did catch me off guard. I think I might have seen too many geek-kids-taken-for-a-ride-by-bad-kids sort of stories that made me feel like I knew where it was headed. And initially, when it seemed like the story might circle back to Charlie's home town where he and Jake would have to deal with the fallout from their car theft and police evasion, I was a little worried the story would get stuck in neutral. Instead, Scott William Carter throws the boys out into the wilderness of the open road, and suddenly I worried that these boys couldn't possibly deal with anything that came their way.
It was this anxious peril that propelled me through the book and lingered with me long after it was done. The boys are unsafe almost from the very beginning, and it shouldn't come as a surprise that they find themselves continually in some jam or another. In the end, there are natural consequences to their actions and a sense of both justice and redemption that doesn't feel forced or unnatural.
I only wish it had a better title.
The Last Great Getaway of the Water Balloon Boys
by Scott William Carter
Simon & Schuster 2010