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Thumbsucker: A Novel Paperback – October 19, 1999
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New York magazine's witty, cheeky book critic Walter Kirn rides high in his exhilarating second novel, and so does his protagonist, Minnesota teen dweeb Justin Cobb. Justin's hippie dentist may have hypnotized him out of his socially perilous thumbsucking habit, but he can't suppress the boy's "oral gift." Justin's mouth just won't quit: beer, decongestants, nitrous oxide, cough syrup, Midol, and Ritalin go in, and out spritzes hilarious commentary on his eccentric yet authentic life and times. Our hero's mood larks and plunges erratically, but Kirn's prose is alert, artful, under control. The debate coach's skin is "the neutral hue of turkey meat." One of Justin's realistically inconclusive crushes is a redhead "with freckles the color of new pennies." Her dad is a Limbaughesque columnist who calls welfare recipients "food tramps." Meanwhile, Justin's dad, Mike, is "the Führer of fly-fishing," an ex-gridiron hero obsessed with deer hunting (and eating). He's also prone to spouting his vile old coach's preposterous apothegms ("Until you're broken, you don't know what you're made of"). Mike is funny and poignant--a tricky note to hit.
Like a mucked-up modern Huck Finn plying his own stream of consciousness, Justin drifts into weird scenes: a job at a gas station fated for torching, a visit by his mad Winnebago vagabond grandparents, a kidnapping caper to rescue a pothead infant from sinister hick parents, Grit and Munch. Chapter 4, about a Chippewa City debate meet and rather chaste orgy, is dazzling teen satire. Not that Thumbsucker is flawless: Justin's nurse mom is a vague character, his more vivid kid brother is inexplicably ignored, the satire of the Hazelden celeb rehab is lame, and, like Huck's, Justin's adventures sort of peter out instead of leading up to a slam-bang finale. The family's conversion to Mormonism seems arbitrary, though richly detailed, since Kirn was a small-town Mormon kid.
Flaws, schmaws. Thumbsucker is the truest book about adolescence I've read since This Boy's Life, and Kirn is some kind of comic genius. --Tim Appelo
From Publishers Weekly
Dark and witty, novelist (She Needed Me) and book critic Kirn's narrative of demoralized 1980s suburbia chronicles the coming-of-age of Justin Cobb, a 14-year-old who develops a series of addictions after his dentist-cum-therapist breaks his thumb-sucking habit. This premise is fortified by Kirn's uncommonly thoughtful treatment of Justin's humorously dysfunctional familyAhis sports-obsessed father calls his family "you people"; his beloved, increasingly New Age mother is a nurse at a celebrity rehab clinic; his younger brother, Joel, quietly cultivates a fetish for expensive designer clothing. Only Justin seems to realize how close his family is to emotional collapse. Unable to bear the weight of saving them himself, he cleverly engineers their conversion to Mormonism. Thankfully, their new-found spiritualism does nothing to stifle Justin's iconoclastic opportunism, which keeps the story bouncing along to its conclusion. Kirn's bildungsroman contains all the genre's essential themes (sexual exploration, intellectual flowering, etc.) but his plotting subverts any clich?d revelations. When Justin joins his high school speech team, his gift for persuasion, and a new addiction to decongestants, makes him cocky, but he is quickly deflated by his melancholy speech coach. Many other neat reversals of fortune, peppered with taut, edgy dialogue, fit beautifully into Kirn's satirical style. However carefully Justin documents the changes in other characters, his own character remains oddly consistent, so that, despite all the laughs, the novel ends with the hero still on the brink of real transformation. But he's such a sharp, endearing lad, with psychic depths as fascinating as his glossy cynicism that readers will be satisfied with young Justin just as he is. Author tour. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
The funniest passage is his description of a nocturnal trip in his grandparents' motorhome.
There were a few other sections where I laughed out loud, but it always seemed that the reader was held at arm's length, so I couldn't feel Justin's adolesence anguish. I think this book would have been much better if it had been edited a little more tightly, or if the grandparents--and other peripheral characters--had more page-space.
Read this if you're going on a long bus trip. It's not a great book, but it's not a bad book, either.
Once on Ritalin, Justin is freed to pursue an erratic smorgasbord of passions -- working at a gas station, debate club, girls, fly fishing, recreational drugs, and finally Mormonism. With each he immerses himself in the totality of such a livelihood. In almost every encounter, he meets adults who engage his passion. At first, those adults appear to be principled mentors. In almost every case, though, the adults turn out to be thwarted by self-interest and deceptive moral ambiguity. The contradiction between Justin's earnest searching and the acts of those adults sets up the book for the comparisons it makes to the story of the Catcher in the Rye. Perhaps Justin Cobb is a new version of Holden Caufield. I suppose there's a bit of Ferris Bueller here, too.
This book is described as a story of the 80s. Refreshingly, that effort is done without using a bunch of symbolic shortcuts. There are no references to popular music, politics, or current events. I suppose the Ritalin marks the book within a specific time frame, but that is about it.
This is a fun book to read, not something that will take weeks. It would be good for a book club. It would be ideal men's book club.
Kirn's strongest trait is conversational writing. Whether it is one of his earlier works or a short story, there is never an excess of words. Each point seems trimmed of all fat, yet the pictures of each scene are vivid. Many times physical descriptions of characters are totally removed in favor of traits. So why did I give this a 3 star rating? I'm spoiled. After waiting so long for another novel from Kirn, I have to say this is a let down. THe book rambles, almost like a conversation that has forgotten why it started in the first place. The resolution of the story is non-existent. And, as a child of Mormon upbringing (I think) Kirn eventually devotes substansial pages to conflicting Mormon views and traditions. We've read it before from you, Walter -- it gets old after a while. At this point in his career, yo would think Kirn would be reaching away from the Mormon/religious roots, but this book stays firmly planted in it at the end. A good read, but I suggest his other works first.