Confessions and Compulsions
(two YA reviews)

h1 July 19th, 2007 by jules

Author and historian J.L. Powers has penned her first YA novel, The Confessional (Knopf; July 2007; review copy), and it’s a compelling read, told from the perspectives of multiple students at an El Paso high school. They are reeling from the recent destruction of a local bridge by a Mexican national, a suicide bomber protesting — to “the President and People of the United States” — the treatment of immigrant workers: “First, I am a Mexican, not a terrorist. Yet when I am caught crossing the river to go to work, your Border Patrol makes me bend over, looking for explosives up my butt. They used to look for drugs. Now it’s all about Al-Qaeda.” One student — MacKenzie Malone, from whose perspective the novel is told for the first three chapters — responds in a letter to the Editor by asking for a pause in the Cinco de Mayo celebrations this year in the name of “suitable mourning and remembrance,” angering a lot of the Mexican students with whom he attends school. On the same day that MacKenzie fights violently at the school’s basketball courts with another student, Bernie Martinez, he (MacKenzie, that is) is found dead in his neighborhood, having been stabbed repeatedly.

Thus begins the novel’s alternating points-of-view, as a closeted gay student, the “peacemaker,” the “infiltrator,” “Mr. Invisible,” and others (six voices in all) tell their story, examine their own prejudices (and others’ — “Do any of us realize the million stupid truths about the people we love?” wonders one student), and try to come to terms with MacKenzie’s death and who may have been responsible for it. The word “gritty” gets overused in describing novels like this — which examine in a no-holds-barred way the minds and attitudes and mores of so-called inner city male teens — but, well, it’s gritty as hell. As it should be, too. Powers doesn’t hold back on the drug use, violence, tough talk, sexism, and rampant homophobia.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers here (and telling you that MacKenzie is murdered isn’t any more than what you would read on the book’s jacket), but I will say that the ending could have been stronger. I wanted the loose ends to be pulled together a bit more tightly and wanted a stronger motivation on the part of the student responsible for MacKenzie’s death. I actually wondered if I’d missed something, some detail that would have brought me more insight.

But I also want to add that Powers has crafted an unputdownable novel for, in particular, those so-called reluctant readers, particularly male teens. And she never condescends, thank goodness, when tackling such weighty issues as the Iraq war and pacifism (“if you’re against war, if you’re a pacifist, does that mean you can’t defend yourself?” one student asks), racial prejudice, and homophobia (“Does being white trump gay? Should I be glad I’m white?”); endowing her characters with a bit of vulnerability as they address coming-of-age issues (“Sometimes I get the feeling I’m marching blindly toward something I don’t want to be,” says another student, to which MacKenzie replies, “You are . . . It’s the inevitability of turning eighteen and becoming an adult . . . But we don’t have a choice. In real life, nobody loves Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up”); and weaving a theological thread throughout the story, as a few of the boys truly contemplate their and others’ religious beliefs in the midst of the racial tensions (“This is a Catholic school. Isn’t there some Bible verse that says in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile or male or female or anything like that? We’re all basically the same, right? You think God really gives a damn about national borders and who’s on which side?” says one student during a brewing cafeteria brawl) — all without overwhelming the narrative and while succeeding in giving each student his own distinct voice. As this mini review at NewPages points out, “{t}his book can get any class of students wanting to read to the end and talking the whole way through about issues of terrorism, racism, classism, sexism (LOTS on the male side of this and the pressures placed on young men), homophobism {I hate to sound pedantic, but sic}, family, community, education and religion.”

Powers also includes some refreshing moments of real poignancy, in juxtaposition to all the aforementioned and necessary grit, such as when one student, Isaiah Contreras, is trying to describe to his baby sister what it’s like to have a dead friend:

“You know how it is when there’s something you really, really want? And you’re looking forward to it for weeks? I mean, something important.”

She nods her head. So cute, with her little dark curls and black eyes.

“You’re just waiting and waiting. You don’t want nothing else, just this. It’s the only thing you can think about.”

She nods again. She’s tracking with me.

“So then, pretend, it don’t happen. It don’t happen at all. Whatever you wanted. And you have this sick, lonely, lost, homesick kind of feeling at the pit of your stomach.”

“Oooooh,” she says.

“That’s what it’s like.” . . .

“I’m sorry.” She scoots her chair really close to mine and leans in to rest her head on my shoulder. She pats my face with her little hand.

Suddenly I’m crying into my damn burrito. Buckets. Damn little kid.

And she doesn’t sugarcoat the ending — or anything before it, for that matter. YA librarians might want to remember it’s not exactly an uplifting read when talking to those teens looking for such a narrative. The most joyous moment (rather, only joyous moment) is when the closeted gay student steps out of said closet, though readers are given no guarantee he won’t get brutally beaten, say, after the novel’s close: “What is different is how I feel . . . more alive. Free. Like if they put me onstage right now, to sing to the Pope, the goddamn president of the United States, and Bono himself, I will rock their world.”

It’s a provocative and promising first YA novel from Powers, and I look forward to what she might bring us next . . .

In Total Constant Order, Crissa Jean Chappell’s debut YA novel (HarperCollins), we meet fifteen-year-old Frances Isabelle Nash (“Fin”), whose family has moved to Miami from Vermont and whose parents, soon after, divorce. Fin doesn’t fit in at her high school, and she is also a compulsive counter: “I kept count like a magic spell. I counted my footsteps, my breath, and even my heart thudding under my ribs. If I didn’t keep count, I worried that it would stop beating.” Chappell’s depiction of the disorder is detailed, showing us that Fin preferred “{s}afe, solid numbers, like fives and tens, that stood on their own, no explanation required.” (Her OCD manifests itself in other ways as well, such as repeated hand-washings). Her mother, with her own set of undiagnosed psychological troubles, sends Fin to a therapist, who prescribes Paxil to her. Fin also meets Thayer Pinksy, another social pariah at her school, who suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder and is also on meds. As Fin struggles with the confusing and painful side effects of Paxil, she also struggles to tell Thayer about her OCD and her fear that she will have to rely on Paxil to keep her happy the rest of her life (“what if it changed me into someone else, a robot blissed out on artificial emotions?”). She also is introduced to the world of tagging (aka graffiti), thanks to Thayer (“{t}agging kept my head and hands working in total constant order”), though eventually her therapist clues in to the fact that sketching and expressing herself through drawing is the best way to control the noise in Fin’s head.

This novel, according to the author, began as a series of short stories, and it is based on her own experiences with OCD: “I was unhappy with the way that OCD is portrayed in television and movies, as if it were the punch line to a joke,” she writes. To that end, Chappell has succeeded — in that she effectively takes the reader into the mind of someone suffering from this anxiety disorder and does so with candor and no trace of self-pity:

Before we moved to Miami, I’d always heard a voice in my head, ordering me to listen. The rules changed constantly. Once, I spent an entire day stepping over cracks. Another time, the voice told me to enter every room with my right foot forward. If I forgot and used my unlucky left, I started over. When I heard my parents arguing, I tapped the light switch on and off to keep us safe.

I was always in danger of doing something wrong.

And, fortunately, Chappell does bring us some insight into the possible reasons behind Fin’s disorder, primarily genetics (Fin’s mother tends toward the same anxieties and manifestations of it — indeed, she hints that her anxiety heightened after the birth of Fin, who, she tells her, was essentially a collicky baby: “I wasn’t prepared for it,” her mother tells her) and the disruption in her life caused by the move and her parents’ divorce: “My parents were at each other’s throats. After the shouting, they waged a creepy battle without sound. Kids say there’s nothing sadder than hearing your parents fight . . . I would’ve given anything for a little screaming and yelling. It was so much worse when they didn’t care enough to argue.” In fact, Fin’s new home in Florida is almost a character in and of itself in the novel, and Fin’s great disdain for it does not help her anxiety levels: “That’s what bugs me about the Sunshine State. Everybody expects you to be happy all the time, like you’re living on vacation. But it’s not a vacation if you never get to leave.” Chappell told Little Willow in an April interview, “{s}howing the ‘real Miami’ (the manatees and mangroves, Kendall’s suburban sprawl, and the industrial bleakness of downtown) was very important to me. Too often, the city is misrepresented in movies and television shows . . . many of which aren’t even shot on location.”

The novel is slowly, quietly paced (indeed, there were a few times I felt it needed a momentum kick). And I found myself wanting more of Thayer and Fin. In the end, Fin sees that Thayer helped her survive, to cope in her own way, though “trapped in the modern world.” Yet, that didn’t strike me as emotionally-compelling and satisfying as it perhaps should have, because it seemed that more often than not he was ignoring her or being flat-out rude to her. But what I really savored is that every now and then Chappell’s writing is evocative, precise in its imagery and detail: “Thayer was so much himself. He buzzed like neon, oblivious” and “Thayer ambled toward the street. I could still see him, the way sparklers left marks in midair” — and Fin’s description of hearing Thayer and his friend slide into a conversation in Spanish: “{It} reminded me of ribbons curling.” Occasional striking metaphors like that (“my invisible army of numbers”) made me crave even more and leave me anticipating what next comes from the mind of Chappell.

Very obviously, this would be a good recommendation for YA readers, particularly teen girls, who want some insight into anxiety disorders, particularly OCD. And it’s a good recommendation as well for those wanting to read about the varying perspectives on medications for such disorders (toward the novel’s close, Thayer tells Fin, “Who says you need to change your perspective? Maybe OCD is like perfect rhythm. It’s in you, right? I think you can learn to roll with it. You don’t need that Paxil garbage banging around your cranium”, though Chappell gracefully handles Fin’s decision to take a bit of Thayer’s dire warnings and her therapist’s more gentle urgings to make up her own mind on the matter). But what makes the book work is that Fin’s problems are also universal in nature: coming-of-age (“it’s a coming-of-age story, not unlike a fairy tale. Only Fin’s battling OCD instead of a dragon,” writes this blogger), parental strife, feeling like an outcast at school (particularly in having to deal with the Mean Girls), and more. Fin tells her therapist: “From the minute you start school, you’re fed a bunch of lies: Be yourself. Don’t follow the crowd, blah blah. What they really mean is: Follow the crowd. Just make sure it’s the right one.” Word.

Chappell has also said, “This is a novel about swallowing the fear of insanity that we all share, and escaping the judgment of others,” another reason I’d hate to lump this novel into the for-OCD-sufferers-only category. As the aforementioned blog review put it nicely, “{t}he {book’s} back cover blurb calls it ‘a haunting exploration of one teen’s experience with OCD and Paxil,’ which kind of makes it sound like an infomercial.

I think that’s selling a wonderful story very short.”

* * * * * * *

{Total Constant Order will be released in October of this year. My review comes from an advance reading copy; quoted excerpts are subject to change}.

4 comments to “Confessions and Compulsions
(two YA reviews)”

  1. crissa’s book looks fascinating–looking forward to it! thanks for the review. =9

  2. Thank you so much for writing such a thoughtful review of my first novel.

  3. […] Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast has written a lengthy and thoughtful review of The Confessional. Thanks to Jules, who wrote the review. […]

  4. TCO is a great book, and far better than any infomercial!

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