Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes
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In my mind this book is only a couple years old, not out of date but perhaps off the radar, which was why I initially considered reviewing it here.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