“If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.” Author Matthew Quick uses these particular words from poet Seamus Heaney as a section break late in Boy21, and how fitting they are for Finley and Russell, the two main characters of this outstanding young adult novel. And how fitting for all of us, this message of finding our way through language. Isn’t this what novels are meant to do? Even sports novels?
Too often novels, particularly young adult novels, that incorporate sports fall on the first hurdle—whatever they may do well literarily, they fail to get the sports right. In Boy21, Matthew Quick gets basketball. The patterns, the passions, the tension and the triumphs. The almost talismanic feel of the ball in your hands, the pulse of the dribble, the soothing rip of ball through net. The dropped-shoulder feint, the no-look pass, the necessity of misdirection.
I thought I knew where Boy21 was going when I began reading. Here’s a straightforward story: Finley, a white kid in a mostly black school who succeeds in basketball through grit rather than athletic skill. Low on “measurables” but high on intangibles—a coach on the court but silent off it. Finley guards the opposition as diligently as he guards his emotions. His girlfriend Erin is a basketball star herself, and the sport helps gird both of them against the emotional and material poverty of their home lives, against the gang that rules their part of town. Then Finley’s starting position is threatened by the arrival of Russell Allen, a basketball prodigy from Los Angeles whose parents were killed and who is now living with relatives in Finley’s town. Coach wants Finley to help acclimate Russell, It’s what a team captain would do, right? Put the team first?
Familiar territory: a bit of Hoosiers, a bit of The White Shadow, a bit of 8 Mile. But Boy21 has game, and what seemed stereotypical is just a well-set screen off which Quick runs successful back cuts.
Russell is a phenom all right, but he is also a broken kid. He doesn’t want to be called Russell anymore; he is Boy21 now. He says he is from the cosmos, stranded here on Earth. But he will be leaving soon. And he has no interest in playing basketball, even though basketball might be the one thing that can bring Russell back.
The gang that controls part of the town is an old-school Irish gang. Finley’s emotionally broken father and physically broken grandfather were both broken by the gang, in ways neither the reader nor Finley fully understand until the ending. Erin’s brother is involved as well, and from his involvement comes a shocking break of its own.
Quick runs a sophisticated offense in Boy21, a high-tempo mélange of story that in less capable hands would break down. Issues of race, gender, class, grief, sacrifice, duty—you can see how this could devolve into empty feel good-ism. But Quick is a trusted point guard, and he makes this novel soar, bringing the disparate story strands together in ways both surprising and fulfilling.
“Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” This precept, variously attributed to journalist Heywood Broun and legendary basketball coach John Wooden, resonated with me as I read Boy21. Should not this quotation also apply to novels? Even sports novels? Despite my ongoing basketball metaphors, Boy21 is not just a sports novel. Quick also gets relationships; he not only builds characters, he reveals them. The evolving relationship between Russell and Finley drives this novel, but the other relationships (boyfriend-girlfriend, father-son, coach-player, teammate-teammate) are thoughtfully presented as well. In what I promise will be my final basketball metaphor, Boy21 should be a first-team All-American selection. Read it.