This book for young adults is good on so many levels. It tells the story of an angry, hurt, confused young kid of 17, Malik Kaplan, who thinks being a “badass” is the way to cope with all the hurt and pain in the world: hit out at others before they hit you, and then self-medicate (through alcohol or whatever is handy), to take away the pain of who and what you are (and are not). So: does this sound like a protagonist you would like? No, it does not. It did not to me. But I got hooked almost immediately. And if you read this author’s previous book involving these same characters (see my review of Pull, here), you will know that the story is immeasurably enhanced by giving an even greater role to the character of Barnetta Murhaselt.
“Barney” is 14 and a force of nature. She is six feet tall, “big and curved,” and absolutely refuses to follow the crowd. She will not pick on kids just to be popular, nor will she play games, tell lies, or put up with macho b.s. from boys, especially not boys like Malik. Malik is very attracted to those aspects of Barney, even though she doesn’t have stereotypical thin looks or wear revealing clothes. Plus, she is independent, and wants to take care of herself. Malik respects that. But there is one thing Barney will not abide, and that is drinking. Her mother was killed by her father in an alcoholic rage, and Barney is big into self-respect.
Self-respect is not something that comes natural to Malik. He has been bullied and misunderstood, and has grown up feeling unloved. For him, alcohol is not only an essential ingredient of “fun”; it is a necessary psychic pain-killer. He also has come to believe that a successful male must maintain control over girls and over their sexuality. “Love” is a weakness, because it in effect cedes control to the object of one’s affection.
Barney sees through Malik’s strategy of hurting others before they can hurt him, and she calls him on it. Not only that, she likes him anyway. If only he could get his act together….
Malik is one of the lucky ones though. He is not without resources or a support system. He just has to figure out how to separate out the positive in his life from the many negatives that have always absorbed his attention.
Discussion: Binns loads up this book with “issues” – drinking and sex, gender roles, bullying, preying on perceived weakness generally, parenting problems, role models, and so on. But this story never felt to me like it was too much of a grab bag or that the confluence of problems was unrealistic. Furthermore, at no time is this negative behavior glamorized. On the contrary, because of the courage and independent stance of Barney, readers are presented with a much kinder and more rewarding approach to adolescence. Malik is also lucky to have an additional role model in the character of the family lawyer, Zach Patterson, who is able to provide guidance to Malik free from any father-son-relationship baggage to get in the way.
Without revealing what happens at the end, I think it is fair to say that it comes out positively (but not overly so), in a manner that is not predictable or cheesy, but nevertheless includes an element of hope. Is such an ending justified? I think in Malik’s case it probably is, because he has support in his life that most kids don’t have. Still, the barriers for him are so high, it scares me to think about all the kids out there with no help whatsoever in negotiating and overcoming the pitfalls faced in troubled environments.
Evaluation: Many, many people in our society grow up in settings riddled with poverty, crime, poor educational opportunities, dysfunctional memes defining “success,” and no dreams of better prospects ahead. In order to gain a sympathetic understanding of their lives, you can hardly do better than reading the fiction of B.A. Binns. She helps you see the characters from all sides, so that you never lose sight of their humanity as they struggle with their given lots in life. You come to admire them for their perseverance, loyalty, attempts to negotiate the shoals of dignity to which most human being aspire, and the ability just to keep going, in spite of everything. She also manages to make these kids sound absolutely authentic notwithstanding her omission of all the bad language used by so many of these kids. But I’m not going to complain about that!
Published by AllTheColorsofLove Press, 2013