Wednesday, September 2, 2009

King of the Screwups by K.L. Going

"Give it a rest, Allan," Pete says. I'm not trying to be anybody's father, and if your son happens to be looking for one, maybe you should ask yourself why that is."

Dad laughs.

"If my son happens to be looking for one, I don't think he's going to find it in a cross-dressing disc jockey who lives in a trailer park."

Well, you never know...

K.L. Going wrote a book a few years ago that just knocked my socks off. Fat Kid Rules the World, it was called, and I remember reading it on the subway and snorting with laughter, so much that people around me broke the ignore-each-other subway etiquette and actually asked what I was reading. This book felt so fresh to me. I loved the fat ungainly narrator with his loser life and his outsider's point of view. He spent the book nurturing his inner Eeyore, but still, it was madly engaging and I fell for him hard. On the strength of my beloved Fat Kid, I went on to read Going's next three novels, which all disappointed me (just me, mind you. They were all well reviewed, but somehow I found they lacked the flavour of her debut). With King of the Screwups, however, Going has gotten my attention once more.

One of the things I think she does best is write oddball characters, get down deep into them, and make them real. Not just real, but worthwhile. She really makes you root for her good guys, no matter what their problems. In King of the Screwups, it's not really the protagonist who's a screwup, although he has certainly been brainwashed into thinking he is. No, it's his parents who are the losers in this story. Behind their successful worldly facades, they are too wrapped up in themselves to really do the hard work of parenting. Liam believes he is letting them down, but really, from my point of view, they are the ones with the problem. And I say "they" deliberately because, even though Liam's Mom is a much more sympathetic character than his cold-hearted Dad, when push comes to shove she chooses to turn her back on her son. The really sad part of this story is that Liam loves his parents so much, both of them, and trusts them too. It breaks my heart. The arc of the journey, for Liam, is not just figuring out what his strengths are, but also tearing down that curtain behind which his Dad is hiding and bellowing "I AM OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL! BECOME LIKE ME OR BE FOREVER BANISHED FROM MY SIGHT!". And trying to get his Mom to step up to the plate like an adult and do her job, which is being a parent. To him. Not to her husband, needy as he is. His turn is over now. Time to grow up.

The other thing I think Going does best is be funny. And despite the serious subject matter, King of the Screwups is a very successful comedy. Liam's Dad kicks him out of the house by chapter 2, so despite the massive room he takes up in Liam's brain, he's not actually around much. Liam ends up living in his gay glam-rock uncle's small-town trailer home. "Aunt Pete" is a great character, flamboyant, comfortable with himself, a bit out of his depth with Liam at times but definitely capable of giving him love and support. If anyone can turn Liam's life around, it's Pete. I loved watching it happen, and I loved the band mates who pitch in to help. King of the Screwups is a book that I'd like to see a sequel to--I've grown attached to Liam and his new family, and now that he's beginning to blossom, I'd love to see how far he can go.

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