Allison's Book Bag

Boy 21 by Matthew Quick

Posted on: May 31, 2013

When my husband saw the cover of Boy 21, he observed that Boy 21 looked as it were science fiction. In reality, Boy 21 is set in a small town on this planet in which we all live and is the tale of how two teenage boys become friends while trying to help each other through their own private hell. Finley seems to have a fairly normal life, especially when you throw in his love of basketball, but there is a reason why Finley barely talks, his mom is absent, and his grandfather is in a wheelchair. Boy 21 is the alter ego that newcomer Russ has created to accept the murder of his parents. If he relinquishes this identity and becomes a basketball star again, he’ll compete for Finley’s spot and therefore jeopardize his friendship with Finley. You’d think this would be enough trauma for two young boys to handle, except then another tragedy happens which changes both them and their families forever.

Although told solely from the viewpoint of Finley, Boy 21 has two strong story lines or maybe even three. The first is about Finley, who loves basketball and his girlfriend Erin. On the surface, Finley’s story is about his desire to play basketball and his father’s philosophy that one can do anything one tries. Finley is not a great basketball player, but he tries maybe harder than anyone, and that ends up being enough to land him a spot on the school team. This plot alone is a terrific one, and especially hard-hitting when Finley realizes that one sometimes doesn’t get to pick their role in life. There’s also a twist where the coach asks Finley to help Russ, but not to let anyone know about Russ’s past. Is the coach right to place this burden on Finley? Is the coach right to demand it, without at the same time allowing that Finley might have his own burdens to handle? These are tough questions, which lead to Finley to recognize that other teachers might also have insights to offer. I never knew what would happen next to Finley and that makes for a riveting read.

The second story line is about Boy 21. In a way, despite its dark nature, this tale is a simpler one. When the two boys meet, Russ talks about outer space, acts as if his parents are out there waiting for him, and claims that he is not from this world. I know this doesn’t sound simple, but there aren’t any twists on this story line. Basically, Russ hides behind his space obsession until he is ready to relinquish it. How he comes to that point and how his space obsession actually helps Finley is up to you to discover for yourself. Just know that both of these things happen, but that Boy 21 is a complex story because it isn’t simply about how a boy comes to terms with the murder of his parents. It’s also about why the coach asked Finley to help out Russ, how the lives of the two boys intertwine, and why eventually Finley walks away from both the coach and Russ to focus on a third person in his life.

This last story line involves gangs and felt the least real to me. This doesn’t mean the events couldn’t happen, just that my only exposure to such situations has been on cop shows. Then again, I normally have little trouble buying into fantasy, which obviously is far removed from my life experience. Is it that despite hints through foreshadowing, one of the twists didn’t quite fit? No, I suspect the truth is that because in every other way Quick made me feel as if I could have been reading about the kid next door, the gang world simply felt too far removed from normal. One day I would like to read Boy 21 again, because maybe by already knowing the story I would more openly embrace its conclusion.

Matthew Quick has said that one way or another all the work he has published and all the work he is contracted to publish is about mental health. His subject matter is one reason I appreciate his books. However, despite overly positive endings, the main reason I love his books is because Quick doesn’t flinch at the abnormal effects grief can have on behavior. His characters deal with life’s hardships in unconventional ways before eventually finding some kind of normality that they can live with. For that reason, I think Quick is one of the best authors out there when it comes to writing about the down side of life.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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