I know I need to get started on Veronica Mars, so much so that it’s on my list of New Years Resolutions and in my Netflix queue. And because I know many people I respect love both that show and Party Down, I suppose I’m happy that Rob Thomas is getting a new television show.
But I kind of wish the guy would get back to high school, particularly to the work he did in two of his young adult novels, Rats Saw God and Slave Day that are two of the most important books I read as a young teenager. The first book tells the story of a troubled but talented kid writing an essay about a failed relationship that lead him to move from his father’s house in Texas to his mother’s house in California. The latter takes place at a high school that holds, instead of a date auction, a fundraising slave auction.
The conceits sound fairly generic, told that way. But those novels were, as a shy suburban kid, some of the first hints I had that high school, and life, could be different. The main characters in Rats Saw God are outcasts in a Texas high school who form a club called the Grace Order of Dadaists. They had cooler lives than I did, but not in a Gossip Girl kind of way: they make art, and actually go to rock concerts, and drank in high school. And Slave Day, though it’s less acclaimed, is maybe even more brilliant and uncomfortable. Set again in a Texas high school, the book moves through the lives of a kid who lives in a trailer park but wants to act, an aspiring black militant, a bitter teacher in the midst of a divorce, and an outwardly golden couple on the cheerleading squad and football team with equal fluidity. It’s a great portrait, and again, gave me a sense that life was richer and more complicated, or at least it would be some day if I sought it out.
These are among the books I’ll give my kids someday for that reason, and because they’re honest about sex, poverty, image, and authority. One of the reasons I find the Twilight series so frustrating is what they represent in terms of escape. They’re a retreat from complexity, rather than the promise that in complexity lies choice, and the chance to define a new identity, and liberation. There are a lot of teenagers out there who want, and deserve the latter.