Monday, March 9, 2015

Fat Boy Vs. The Cheerleaders by Geoff Herbach

Roe v. Wade
Plessy v. Ferguson
Fat Boy vs. The Cheerleaders

One of these is not a landmark Supreme Court case.

But while Fat Boy vs. The Cheerleaders is not the name of a Supreme Court case, it is a supremely entertaining (my work is done here––thank you for reading) account of Gardener et al v. MLA Independent School District, or How I Learned To Stop Drinking Soda And Found My Own Name.

The titular Fat Boy is Gabe Johnson and Geoff Herbach’s entire novel is a transcript of Gabe’s day-long testimony to the police about his involvement in the so-called Spunk River War. This fracas between the social elite of Minnetonka Lake Area High School and the geekers stems from a dispute over school funding. More specifically, the dispute stems from the shady switch of soda machine profits at the school from the band to the newly established school dance team.

This synopsis and the title make the book sound like the cheesiest of ‘80s teen films, but in Herbach’s hands the book reads more like a nod to knowing ‘80s teen films like Better Off Dead. And since part of Gabe’s attempt to remake himself involves leaving behind the “Chunk” nickname that even his friends Justin and Camille use, you can think of this book as Better Off Gabe.

"Chunk" would not have involved himself in school politics, even if did affect his beloved band program. But Chunk drank soda and ate too much to help mask the emptiness in his life since his mom left and his father sank into his own fat-laden slough of despond. Chunk ass danced (sometimes literally) around his issues and pretended the names didn’t hurt. But Gabe has bigger goals, and with the support of his new friends RCIII (think RGIII, not RC Cola) and Gore, he is going to protest the school's questionable financial shenanigans and demand justice for the band program and his fellow geekers.

“Gore” is actually Chandra, a Goth girl with a disturbing backstory; the growing romantic relationship between Gore and Gabe is one of the highlights of the novel­. Their interactions had me singing Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” with a smile on my face. Another highlight is Gabe’s relationship with his fitness fiend of a grandfather, the man who is helping Gabe reshape his body, his life, and his identity.

Gabe’s frequently hilarious voice masks some deeper truths about identity and empathy. Herbach presents interesting analysis about the power of names, analysis always accompanied by accessible humor. Humor is also a way of saying something serious, and Herbach is saying serious things about what it means to feel like an outsider and why dehumanizing the “cool” kids is just as shallow as the “cool” kids dehumanizing you. Fans of Herbach’s Stupid Fast and its sequels Nothing Special and I’m With Stupid will recognize the winning mixture of hilarity and sincerity, the keenly drawn characters, and the idea of a teenage boy dealing with weighty issues.

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