Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes

Eric and Sarah Byrnes (always with both names) have been friends since Eric was a fat kid and Sarah Byrnes was... that girl with the burns on her face. Through his involvement with swimming, Eric has slimmed down but he still loyal to the one friend he had during hard times. But now Sarah Byrnes is lying in a mental hospital in a catatonic state. It frustrates Eric that he's losing his friend and he seeks out a former mutual enemy for answers. When Eric hears that her facial scarring wasn't the accident she claims, he confronts Sarah Byrnes in the hospital and learns that she has been faking her catatonic state out of fear of her father.

It's heavy stuff, gritty and real, which makes it both challenging and rewarding for readers. Crutcher likes to populate his stories with underdog athletes because not every kid on the team is a star but they try just as hard, sometimes harder, that those it comes more naturally to. In Eric we see a kid who hated being fat enough to do something about it, but would then willingly give that hard-earned weight loss up to maintain his connection with his friend Sarah. It's that dedication and devotion that gives Eric his depth and makes him more than a character, it makes him real.

Which is not to suggest that Sarah Byrnes is a cryptic invalid waiting to be saved. The Sarah Byrnes we see is a strong-willed, acid-tongued, whip-smart girl who is clearly hiding a deeper secret than what's on the surface. That it turns out not to have been the accident she's said it was all these years, and that she fears for her life, ratchets up the tension. If there is something even Sarah Byrnes fears then it has to be pretty bad, and once Eric knows the truth he puts his life on the line to make it right.

And despite sounding like a book all about feelings, there's a lot of action and suspense. There's a menacing character, the aforementioned bully who may or may not be a loose cannon, and even a car chase and a desperate getaway. Crutcher even manages to put a coda at the end of the book – one of those and-here's-how-everyone-ended-up sort of scenes that would normally have me rolling my eyes but here feels like a cool-down after a rough workout. Some stories you want to end with your heart pumping and a feeling like you know everything is going to work out fine; With Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes you're grateful to be told, for certain, that some things worked out, just not as anyone expected.

Crutcher's been there, he knows what he's talking about. He was the kid who found escape from his small town via sports, and as a social worker he's seen kids in bad straits. Crutcher's realism and his subject matter can sometimes be a hard sell, but his characters and situations are always compelling. Which doesn't mean the characters are perfect.  Far from it.  They're wrong-headed and opinionated and make mistakes all the time, mistakes that should be immediately apparent to the reader and yet strangely familiar.

In my mind this book is only a couple years old, not out of date but perhaps off the radar, which was why I initially considered reviewing it here. But one look at the copyright date -- 1993 -- and I realized this book is potentially older than most of its current audience but still relevant. Because of the themes, the story, and the characters, this book remains, sadly, relatively fresh for contemporary readers.

Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes

by Chris Crutcher


Helen's Book Blog said...

I recently read my first Chris Crutcher novels (Angry Management and Whale Talk), which were both excellent. This one is definitely on my to-read list and I often recommend Crutcher to students

Healigan said...

All my kids (early 20s now) read Chris Crutcher, so I read him too. This was the one that stayed with me. I teach high school, and I SEE the kids in this book every day. I recommend it every year to my students.

david elzey said...

I'm happy to see the Crutcher's books are (still) being recommended. He still comes under fire now and then for language and for being "too mature" for YA readers, whatever the heck THAT means.

I also meant to mention that his King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill Advised Autobiography reads like his fiction in terms of style and content. Not a bad alternative for boys interested in reading about the not-so-rosy teen exploits of a successful writer.

Anonymous said...

I love seeing "old" books here as well as the recent releases. Thanks for featuring this one.