McCormack, John CreateSpace (240 pp.) $9.99 paperback, $6.99 e-book December 3, 2014
A debut YA novel of high school drama that’s just as rambunctious as its narrator.
Jamaal is a senior at Spring Valley High School, a veritable rainbow of ethnic diversity that he describes more than once as a colorful garden salad. He’s two months away from graduation, and the adult responsibilities that loom beyond the school’s safe walls. He’s spent the last several years navigating his high school world, which is rich in social constructs and all the pitfalls they offer. It’s a place where one fights for one’s identity in hallways and in classrooms, and where one defends one’s rank with physical force or a clever insult. Jamaal finds himself enamored of the gorgeous Taneeka, and he comforts her when he discovers how much she’s suffered since her mother’s suicide, due to her father’s abuse. However, he also gets involved with Sandra, a Haitian girl whose straight-laced veneer covers up her smart, snappy personality, and he must determine with whom his heart lies. Meanwhile, he also tries to help his friend Steven, who’s dealing with poverty and addiction in his own family. McCormack’s novel moves at the pace of adolescent life, leaping from one event to the next in quick, anecdotal spurts. This verisimilitude will draw readers into the tumultuous, dramatic current of the characters’ social lives. The book occasionally slips into jokiness and repetition, but Jamaal’s wide-eyed earnestness redeems it. Although the story has a lighthearted tone throughout, it successfully takes up a number of difficult themes in oblique and direct ways, including the disparities of student performance due to socioeconomic inequality, the pressure to act differently among teachers and among one’s peers, and the ethics of romantic obligations. These are by no means insignificant matters, and their appearance lends credence to the author’s apparent desire to capture what a subset of American high schoolers goes through every day.
A genuine, upbeat bildungsroman of African-American high school life.