I've been a fan of Jordan Sonnenblick ever since reading Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie. He's funny, he draws me right in, his stories always seem fresh. He's been called "bittersweet", "deft" and ""charming" . And he makes it all look so easy. Like you could have done the same thing, if only he hadn't happened to have done it first. Very, very deceptive. Kind of zen, in fact.
I read Zen, his latest, in a couple of sittings and enjoyed it thoroughly. San Lee, our main character, is an adopted asian kid with a con artist Dad. He's spent a lot of his childhood abruptly being moved from home to home and school to school as his father tried to stay one step ahead of the law. Now San's Dad is cooling his heels in jail and San and his Mom have plunked themselves down in "Nowhereville, Pennsylvania". Where San, for the record, is the only Asian person in town. ("But I think it's great that Emily's being exposed to such...diversity", says a local Mom when she meets San, "We don't get much chance to meet, um, people like you in our little town.".) And all sorts of assumptions start to accumulate. For example, when San shows up in a Social Studies class which is studying religion, and is able to answer all the teacher's questions on Zen Buddhism because he's done a poster project on the subject in a previous school, the class assumes he is in fact a Zen Buddhist. And San lets them. In fact, he begins to spend evenings at the local library reading The Tao of Pooh and other Zen Buddhist classics in order to be more convincing. And strewing hints that he is possibly a reincarnated Zen mystic. And conspicuously meditating right smack dab before school, right smack dab in front of the school. And dropping gems of wisdom such as this:
"Why'd you do that?" he spat at me.
"The obstacle is the path."
"What does that mean?"
"It's like saying the path is the obstacle."
"What are you talking about?"
"You know, the reverse side also has a reverse side."
He still looked mad, and now his brain was all jammed up too.
You see, even though San is mad as hell at his slippery cheat of a father, he has picked up some of Dad's bad habits. San remakes himself at every new school he attends, searching for a persona that will serve him well. And Woody, a girl who plays the guitar at lunch and smells like oranges, is fascinated by the zen thing San has going on. So San keeps giving her more of what she wants, until, of course, the whole thing blows up in his face. And San has to figure out how to, in zen terms, walk the middle path, no longer letting his relationship to his father colour who he is.
Sonnenblick stands out from the crowd because he can make it so believable, he can create in San a character who is innocent in his deceitfulness, and in the middle of the laughs he can quietly break your heart like this:
"I remember this one time in Alabama, my dad and I were grocery shopping and the cashier was this really nice teenage girl that had always been kind to me. I used to steer our cart to her line every time, because she sometimes even gave me a lollipop. Anyway, my dad let me pay, and she accidentally gave me change for a twenty when I'd given her a five. I...asked my dad if I could run back and give the money back. My dad said, 'Are you kidding me, Sanny? People are dishonest, and they'll screw you nine times out of ten. So when you get a break, you take it. You don't owe anybody anything.' I asked what would happen to the cashier when she didn't have the right amount of money at the end of the day. He said, 'What do you care? She was probably dipping into the till anyway. They all are. And if the boss does ask about it, she'll bat her pretty little eyelashes and they'll forgive her. Because people are chumps.' I thought about it all the way home, and turned to look out the window so my dad wouldn't see me cry. The next time we went to that store, there was a new cashier. And no lollipop."What a skunk, eh? Unbelievably, by the end of the book Sonnenblick even had me feeling a little sorry for this screwed-up dad. That Jordan, he's one good writer.