Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher

Whale Talk T.J. is 1/4 black and 1/4 Japanese in a town of racist rednecks in inland Washington; his single mother, addicted to drugs, abandoned him at two years old. Luckily, she abandoned him to a very nice normal family and he grows up to be probably the happiest character in the book. Take that as a warning sign. He ends up gathering a motley cast of losers and misfits for the swim team, in a quest to get a letter jacket for Chris, the brain-damaged kid who’s been bullied out of wearing his dead brother’s letter jacket.

What’s interesting about this book is that if my suspension of disbelief had snapped for even a second, I would have sighed and rolled my eyes and put the book down, because you could play Problem Novel Bingo with it, and it has an improbable density of awful things that happen, and it’s just too clinical, too therapeutic. And depressing. Did I mention depressing?

But Crutcher has such a firm handle on T.J’s voice – it’s not all snappy and hip in the way of some YA novels, it’s just solid and convincing all the way through. I end up believing all of it. I end up getting sucked into it. I end up getting my heart broken by it even as I get annoyed by the way the plots for coming-of-age novels always seem to need to sacrifice some important character at the end.

T.J. is very believable as a character who feels an idealistic need to rebel against the system and change things, but who also has a chip on his shoulder, and who can’t always neatly draw the line between those two things. This is a guy I knew in high school, definitely. Perhaps no other character in the book is quite as well drawn – I don’t think I really believe in the villainy of the villains – but T.J. manages to hold the whole book together.

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