Sucking in the '80s

Adolescence is a riveting thing to live through. That embarrassing thing that happened to you in eighth grade remains embarrassing for life, and you can still tick off every detail of some freshman injustice when your mom brings up the subject. For this reason, a coming-of-age novel is always something of a double bind. On one hand, any book invoking adolescence results in a basic level of sympathy. But on the other hand, a novel of adolescence has to seek out new territory if it's going to move readers beyond simple, Pavlovian identification. Case in point: Walter Kirn's new '80s-set novel, Thumbsucker. Justin Cobb, the teenage hero, has such a far-reaching variety of anxieties that sooner or later we're bound to identify with one of them. But once Kirn has us on board, he neglects to take us anywhere we haven't been before.

Justin is - guess what? - a thumbsucker. "Being a part of a circle of shoulder, arm, hand, mouth, connected me to myself," he says. "This circle is what they tried to break the summer I turned fourteen." It's an intriguing beginning, this fetal circle, but the trouble starts when the circle is indeed broken-on page 19. Justin replaces his obsession with another one, and then another, until we have an expanding series of circles-beer, pot, Ritalin, religion, fly-fishing, the debate team-that make up a pretty if inscrutable pattern. Maddeningly, Kirn makes sure we're aware of the implications of each diversion through generous use of grand, metaphorical sentences. "I missed that moment when you cast your fly, tied with a knot you can't be sure will hold, and something hidden grabs it," Justin says. But what is this "something"? Redemption? Love? Acceptance? Escape? Kirn has hidden it so well that we don't know what we're fishing for. By all appearances, Thumbsucker is a coming-of-age novel, but Justin never really comes of age. At the book's close, he resumes his original habit on a plane to New York, and anybody who's read The Catcher in the Rye-the granddaddy of the teenage genre-knows that the big city is far from the end of the story.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with tweaking genre per se. Kirn's previous novel, She Needed Me, was a love story set against the backdrop of the abortion debate, and Kirn confounded expectations by bridging the gap between the opposing characters almost immediately. But without soapboxes, Kirn's characters didn't know quite where to stand, and the novel fell flat. His short stories tend to fare better-indeed, the most poignant section of Thumbsucker, a Mormon teen tour, made for an enticing piece in The New Yorker. Thumbsucker has other splendid moments, too, but for all his evocative writing, Kirn can't seem to really evoke anything-a plot to kidnap a baby is keenly rendered, for instance, but Kirn and Justin both lack the courage to go through with it. In the last half of the novel, Kirn belatedly proposes Justin's troubled relationship with his father as the book's center, but the author can't seem to decide if this conflict is between a weary child and an abusive drunk, or merely two typically noncommunicative males.

Of course, life rarely divides itself into such neat categories, so Thumbsucker can be considered successful in that it is authentically muddled. But why read a book that offers no more than a re-creation of puberty? If you're looking for authentic teen angst, stop reading novels and give your mom a call. She, unlike Kirn, has something she really wants to tell you.

 
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