Friday, August 19, 2011

Okay for Now

Okay for Now, Gary Schmidt, Clarion Books, April 2011.

I finished Okay for Now months ago & have been waffling over whether or not to review it at all, mostly because it has been reviewed to death, &, consequently, praised to death. But every time I see the book on my shelf, it gives me the warm fuzzies. So I'm gonna add my two cents to the pot.

Okay for Now is the story of 14-year-old Doug Swieteck, who moves with his family - his mild mother, abusive father, and shady brother Christopher - to upstate New York in 1968, to a house Doug calls The Dump. His teachers and the majority of the townspeople write Doug off as a bad kid, but he finds some unlikely shining lights in his new life: friends in the feisty Lil Spicer & an eccentric playwright named Mrs. Windermere, bookplates in the local library of John James Audubon's birds, a job as the deli delivery boy, & the book Jane Eyre.

If it all sounds like just too much, well, I thought so, too. I thought there was no way these elements could be woven together without it seeming like Schmidt was trying too hard. But he did it. Schmidt layers art, theater, friendship, family dynamics, loss, Creativity with a capital C, self concept, inspiration, tragedy, comedy, & so much more, seamlessly, effortlessly. Even when Doug's older brother Lucas returns from Vietnam, broken in every sense of the word, it isn't too much. That Schmidt accomplishes this is in itself a feat. Every element feels necessary & vital to Doug's development. That he does it in a way that is literarily beautiful is even more impressive.

Doug's voice is stellar. His echoes of "So what?" and "stupid" aren't contrived. The way he chooses to share & withhold information from the reader is brilliantly done, making for an original, believable 14-year-old boy. While I, a 26-year-old woman with a tattoo of one of Audubon's birds & a predilection for 19th century British lit, completely ate up the seemingly unrelated plot elements, it is the strength of Doug's voice that enables Schmidt to go into depth about the birds, Jane Eyre, horseshoes, and the theater without losing a young reader's interest, because of how powerful they are to Doug. Impressive, right? I will undoubtedly return to this book again & again, for many reasons, but the main reason is just to spend some more time with Doug. 

Okay for Now is a nearly perfect book. Nearly. I have one major gripe with the book. In the last 30 of the book's nearly 400 pages, Schmidt deals the characters some bad news. I won't go into detail, but this piece of news is so aggravatingly unnecessary that it won't stop nagging me. It WILL. NOT. LEAVE. ME. ALONE. Every time I get the aforementioned warm fuzzies, "What a great book you wrote..." is followed by "Why, Gary Schmidt, why?!" I cannot wrap my brain around it because there is no reason I can see for him to have done this. It serves no purpose except to make a book otherwise perfect in tone, not heavy-handed in any way, unnecessarily maudlin. You could actually go in & remove the revelation, & the message at the end of the book wouldn't have changed an iota. So why?!

I didn't mean for this to turn into a rant. I'm sure not all people feels as strongly as I do about the turn the story eventually takes. In fact, I haven't seen a review yet that mentions this bummer of a plot twist. But it does, in my mind, tarnish the story. & it is so frustrating because the story is otherwise flawless.

That's the thing about a flaw in a really amazing book, though. It can have a flaw & it's still better than most of what's out there. Which is why I agree with everyone: Okay for Now is one of the best books of the year, & I would not at all be surprised if it wins the Newbery.

Okay for Now is a companion novel to The Wednesday Wars, a Newbery Honor book. According to the Seattle Times, Schmidt is planning one more book in the "series."

Lastly, I was going to pepper in some quotes from the book, but there are too many to choose from. Instead, here's one of my favorite passages from the book, from the first conversation between Doug & Lil. Enjoy, & if you haven't picked up the book yet, I encourage you to do so ASAP.

"That's not how you drink a really cold Coke."
"So how do you drink a really cold Coke?"
She smiled, raised the Coke to her lips, and tipped the bottle up.
She gulped, and gulped, and gulped, and gulped, and gulped. The ice on the bottle's sides melted down toward her--and she gulped, and gulped, and gulped.
When she was finished, she took the bottle away from her lips--she was still smiling--and she sighed, and then she squared her shoulders and kind of adjusted herself like she was in a batter's box, and then she let out a belch that even my brother couldn't match, not on his very best day.
It was amazing. It made birds fly out of the maples in front of the library. Dogs asleep on porches a couple of blocks away probably woke up.
She put the bottle down and wiped her lips. "That's how you drink a really cold Coke," she said. "Now you."


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