Book Review: 2008 Texas Book Festival

Required reading for all those awkward 16-year-olds – post-suicidal and gay or otherwise – who just don't fit in

2008 Texas Book Festival

What They Always Tell Us

by Martin Wilson
Delacorte Press, 304 pp., $15.99

On p.5 of What They Always Tell Us, Alex discovers a hidden bottle of Mr. Clean and places it on top of his family's kitchen counter. This is, of course, a test, because on p.3 we learn that Alex recently tried to off himself at Marty Miller's lake-house party by chugging Pine-Sol. Five pages into this young-adult novel, I'm thinking this Martin Wilson guy – a former Chronicle contributor – is pretty bold.

By p.5 Alex is over wanting to die. Now he's just trying to figure out how to get through his last two years of high school in Tuscaloosa, Ala., being ostracized by his entire junior class and his older brother, James. As the school year progresses, James is busy with tennis practice and lame parties, and Alex finds comfort in a new friendship with Henry, the awkward, lonely 10-year-old who has just moved in across the street. James' friend Nathen, who is on the cross-country team, befriends Alex, and the two start running together. One afternoon, Alex peeks at Nathen's underwear ... wait, what? I flip back to the book jacket, scanning for the words "young adult," but at this point, my expectations are completely irrelevant. I'm just waiting for the steamy shower scene, and when it comes, I'm completely sold on Wilson.

Wilson's first novel fulfills its young-adult-literature duty in terms of uplifting messages, but I think it fulfills a deeper duty to teen readers. Alex's and James' stories are much more relevant to the high school experience than the typical teen read that culminates in an outrageous prom sequence. And while What They Always Tell Us might not be the sort of book a conservative parent wants to see on her teenager's bookshelf, it's definitely required reading for those awkward 16-year-olds – post-suicidal and gay or otherwise – who just don't fit in and can't imagine making it out of their small towns alive.

Do You Mean Gay as in Happy?
Saturday, Nov. 1, 3-4pm
The Sanctuary

Not for Required Reading
Saturday, Nov. 1, 8-9:30pm
Austin Bat Cave (1807 W. 11th)

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