Shapeshifter David vs Hydra-headed Goliath: Chris Crutcher

LD                                       https://i1.wp.com/cdn-prod.www.aws.nypl.org/sites/default/files/images/crutcher_m.jpg

Well, as I finish Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, I have to stop and dash off my pink cloud valentine to Chris Crutcher, the pen warrior. I see some patterns between Deadline and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes that I consider noteworthy and even admirable. Like a good baker, Crutcher knows that if you stay true to the right measurements of your ingredients, you can be creative with substitutions, and come out with something original each time.

His adolescent boy-protagonists: two extremes in one body, usually the asset hidden behind the hairline, the deficit visible to all the world – what a great way to shape the representative of the Age of Development. Hence, Ben in Deadline is undersized and terminal, and Eric in Sarah Byrnes is fat; both smart. In this way, our hero can discover and discuss thorny social and political dilemmas from a variety of angles  (because he is not scared to use his intelligence) while retaining the essential vulnerability of anguished physicality, the most painful aspect of adolescence, in my experience.  Religion, nationalism, racism and sexuality, even death, are brought into play, through our flawed protagonist. We can love him, since his imperfections are always visible, and we feel his experiences, as his vulnerabilities bring us into his world.

His superheroes are female: they embody the feminine mystery of life by carrying a secret, or more, of the painful realities of an oppressive and misogynistic culture; unveiling these drive the story towards its ultimate goal: the truth. These females have greater spunk and grit while showing how to overcome, or at least resist, the  abuse of a hypocritical society; another set of contradictions. They inspire our protagonist, and us, to face the truth, however horrible it is.

His villains are male: their destructiveness is two-fold, coming from the inability to question oneself, i.e. use one’s intelligence; and believing that physical domination is a solution. Despite their darkness, sometimes they are a mixed bag, like Sooner in Deadline, who is redeemed by his athleticism, team spirit, and the possibility that his death will change his abusive father; and Dale in Sarah Byrnes, who is brought onto the winning team by Sarah Byrne’s tactical strategies.

He has two kinds of families, too: the ones that are able to support each other in a healthy way, despite obstacles (Eric and his single mom in Sarah Byrnes; Ben and his brother Cody in Deadline); and families that have threads of violence, abuse and fractured relationships (Sarah in Sarah Byrnes; Dallas in Deadline). He also depicts families ruled by single obsessions, like Sooner’s dad in Deadline, and Ellerby in Sarah Byrnes.

Crutcher challenges the reader to think about issues raised by the smarter kids in the school; he alternates that heady thinking with pulse-racing descriptions of athletic competitiveness, an all-American pursuit. In this manner, he keeps his polarized balance by offering critiques of our political and social culture while cheering us on with the adrenaline of sports.

So, I am warmed by Crutcher’s big, democratic, all-American heart that believes that engaged young people, thinking, feeling, reasoning, will find solutions to the complex, unfair world they are inheriting, despite dark endings.  The desire to have young people commit to their intelligence, their uniqueness, their strengths, is an evident pattern in his books, and in the funny and loving way he depicts all  his young people.

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One thought on “Shapeshifter David vs Hydra-headed Goliath: Chris Crutcher

  1. You make great points, LD!

    I also noticed and appreciated the similarities between Deadline and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. But I’m particularly interested in your point about the story’s “ultimate goal: the truth.” You write: Crutcher’s “superheroes … inspire our protagonist, and us, to face the truth, however horrible it is.” For me, these ideas get to the heart of Crutcher’s work because the truth is not only important to his characters (whether they’re finally telling it or discovering it); it is also central to Crutcher’s philosophy about young adult literature. That is, Crutcher believes that raw or profane language and difficult yet authentic teenage dilemmas are necessary in young adult literature because they reflect the reality he observed while working as a therapist specializing in child abuse and neglect. Crutcher, therefore, wouldn’t be able to write truthfully unless he incorporated some semblance of the pain and tragedy he has seen firsthand. And, as you say so eloquently: Crutcher’s hope seems to be that young people will be able to use what they learn from his stories to “find solutions to the complex, unfair world they are inheriting.”

    Clearly, I share your admiration for Crutcher!

    Posted by SD

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