Monday, January 3, 2011

Pretty Bad Things: pretty good book*

A little set-up: In one of my earliest posts on this blog, I reviewed Ray Bradbury's published script for the 1956 film Moby Dick. I also attempted to interview the book's editor, Professor William Touponce. Among other questions, I asked him if there had been any attempt to address Bradbury's complaint that director John Huston claimed an undeserved screenwriter credit. When I was a teen boy, my friends and I were hyper-aware of perceived unfairness, and this seemed like a glaring example. Prof. Touponce's response: "I really fail to see what these questions have to do with the appeal of Moby Dick to teenage boys."

If Touponce read C.J. Skuse's Pretty Bad Things, he'd have some idea of how important the concept of fairness is to teenagers. The twin heroes, Paisley and Beau, have been massively unfaired-on, and they're not gonna take it anymore.

The novel jumps off from an intriguing premise: what happens to little kids thrust into the public eye? In this case, the six-year-old "Wonder Twins" were lost in the woods following their mother's death, and as a result made the news, did all the talk shows and ended up with lucrative deals to tell their story.

Unfortunately, by the time they're sixteen, things have turned sour. With their mother dead and father in jail, they've been "raised" by a grandmother quite content to raid their bank accounts to maintain her Beverly Hills lifestyle. When they discover their father did not abandon them after all, they head to Las Vegas to find him, literally burning their bridges as they go. Before long desperation drives them to petty theft, and they reclaim their media status as the Wonder Twins, this time for a string of candy store holdups.

The book reminded me most of Jim Thompson's novel The Getaway, if his Doc and Carol had been teenage twins (and gender-reversed, since Paisley is very much the dominant one). The chapters alternate first-person voices between the twins, a pet peeve of mine (pick a voice!) but at least Skuse handles it well. She gives the twins many wonderful, pithy observations (Paisley describes Vegas hotels "that looked like they'd been designed by children") and has a good ear for dialogue.

Pretty Bad Things is firmly in the corner of its twin protagonists against the hypocrisy of the adult world, and the unfairness that it represents. They may stumble a little, and go off on tangents, but Paisley and Beau are ultimately two kids determined to hang onto their family, and aren't about to let the world's lack of fairness get in their way.

*Sorry. The pun was there, taunting me, and I just couldn't resist its vile entreaties.

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