In his most recent comedy special, Aziz Ansari has a bit about how low the standards for men are today, to the extent that any man who manages to dress in something more formal than cargo shorts will have women throwing themselves at him. Ansari often raises questions about masculinity in his comedy, and I thought of these questions as I read Carrie Mesrobian’s outstanding young adult novel Sex &Violence, which raises many questions of its own about what it means to be a man, and does not pretend to have easy answers to any of them.
Evan Carter thinks he has all the easy answers. Identify the girls who are a bit “left of center.” It might be a hair color thing, or a piercing, or that she dresses a bit more provocatively. Something identifies her as “The Girl Who Would Say Yes.” Inevitably, Evan obtains the answer “yes,” sometimes without even having to ask the question. And since Evan’s father moves frequently for work, Evan (whose mother died in an accident years ago) can be secure in the impermanence of all his relationships.
But Collette is different. And the way Evan’s “relationship” with her ends is different. Different bad. Different scary. Different in painful and permanent ways.
The fallout from the Collette situation (trying hard to avoid spoilers here) leads both Evan and his father back to the family’s lake home at Pearl Lake, Minnesota, for the summer. As a broken Evan tries to put himself back together, he starts to see his father change from the workaholic computer geek he had always known. And as Evan begins to fit in with his peers in this small lake community, he starts to see possible models for relationships beyond what he had known in his life as “Dirtbag Evan.” In particular, the beguiling Baker, who is literally the girl next door.
Mesrobian has created a stellar narrative voice in Evan, and I was most impressed that characters who were often presented as stereotypes by Evan were never allowed to remain stereotypes. The lunkhead football player, the criminal townie-- all are shown to have more nuance than our initial introduction to them. Even Baker, who could have been little more than a Manic Pixie Dream Girl for Evan, becomes a strong character in her own right.
With more than a soupcon of Holden Caulfield in Evan, Mesrobian successfully straddles the line between honoring influence and being derivative. But Sex & Violence is so much more than The Catcher in Pearl Lake. An old book about loons and lakes, a forbidden island sanctuary, an abandoned mansion on the island, an estranged uncle with a secret, A Clockwork Orange—all play significant roles in the sprawling plot. And they all work.
Evan says late in the book that perhaps “being a man was mostly about knowing when to shut up about something.” So I will shut up now about how great Sex & Violence is, and just urge you to read it.