"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Friday, June 4, 2010

Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis

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Summary: Humorous look at how a book-smart but socially naive teen struggles to deal with his mother's powerful but illegal empire in Flint, Michigan.

It’s hard growing up in Flint, Michigan and even harder when your ambition is to be America’s most successful and wealthy philosopher. “Doing the right thing is like that, you get a strong feeling of relief, sort of like a giant rock has been lifted off your back. Or like the dump you take the day after you eat the ten-taco special from Los Aztecos.” Yet fourteen year-old-Luther T. Farrell has dreams and ambitions, and nothing, not even his mother, the Sarge, can stop him.

I kept laughing at Luther’s life:

“I’ve always thought of myself as being handsome but in an unusual sort of way. And if that Clearasil really works it won’t be too much longer before I’ll be handsome in a more normal sense of the word.” I mean, the honesty and the self-deception is so perfect, written in the voice of a black teenager in Flint. The humor kept me hooked, wondering just where the author would take Luther, and us.

“Holding your blindfolded best friend’s hand in a cage so he can get bit by a diseased rat isn’t as easy to do as it sounds.”

Luther also has a job as a housekeeper/driver/cook/health aide in one of his mother’s nursing homes, $92,000 in a savings account, a fake driver’s license and the Sarge as his mother.

The Sarge.

Whew! I have mother issues, but I’m glad I don’t have the Sarge.

The Sarge has a mandate against PDA, even with her son. With the Sarge, “Break a rule, lose your allowance; break a mandate, lose your life.” So no hugs for Luther, ever. Oh, Sarge is not a loan shark, Sarge distributes what she calls Friendly Neighborhood Loans. Sarge does not cheat the system, Sarge will milk the system. “If it’s got nipples, I’m going to milk it,” Sarge explains to Luther when Luther thinks about getting a different job. “The daily nine-to-five action is purely for the sucker.”

Perhaps because I lived near Detroit for three years, I felt right at home, reading descriptions of life in one of Sarge’s rental homes and the dialogue rings true, too.

Not a single character even blinks when attorney Dontay Orlando Gaddy (or D.O.G. to his clients) cries out, “Ask not for whom the Taco Bell tolls, it tolls for thee!”

And Luther’s philosophy cracks me up.

“Sometimes being stupid is like falling down a flight of stairs: once you trip on that first step, there’s not a whole lot you can do to stop from going down, down, down.”

This is a Young Adult novel. It’s not “Twilight,” and it’s not “The Giver.” If you’re looking for an uplifting story with a message, find something else. If you want to be deeply moved, ask a librarian for a recommendation, but if you want a light, funny, poignant sample of teen life, then pick this book. Once you fall into Luther’s life, there’s not a whole lot you can do to stop yourself from enjoying this book. 

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