The Austin Chronicle

2008 Texas Book Festival

Reviewed by Elizabeth Jackson, October 31, 2008, Books

The Worst Years of Your Life: Stories for the Geeked-Out, Angst-Ridden, Lust-Addled, and Deeply Misunderstood Adolescent in All of Us

edited by Mark Jude Poirier
Simon & Schuster, 400 pp., $15

From inside, adolescence seems like the crux and the apex of everything life has to offer. Adulthood convinces you that it was all an overly hyped preview – parts are accurate, parts prove underwhelming, and parts never considered turn out to be the most important of all. The collection of stories The Worst Years of Your Life (edited by Mark Jude Poirier and lengthily subtitled) throws us neck-deep into that familiar realm where no one, including yourself, is turning out to be what you thought. Yes, The Worst Years is squirm-inducing, but it is also filled with poignance and unexpectedly sophisticated forms of wiseassness.

Afterschool special topics such as peer pressure, sexuality, and drug use are saved from cliché by the stories' consistent depth and imagination. In A.M. Homes' "A Real Doll," a preteen starts dating his sister's Barbie. Homes' vision steps beyond absurdity to achieve real sympathy, all the more so by how sincerely Barbie is rendered. The boy's first-date nerves: "I started freaking, I was suddenly and incredibly aware that I was out with Barbie. I didn't know what to say." Suffice it to say, his discussions with Barbie about Ken's physical shortcomings are genius. The few indignities of teenhood that turn out to be self-determined become a relief, as in Alicia Erian's "Alcatraz," in which an unpopular girl's boyfriend "assured me constantly that my main problem was not so much that I was fat, but that I smelled bad, which I appreciated, since at least I could do something about that."

"Is there anything more tiresome, in fiction, than the problems of sensitive adolescents?" Naturally, it's the adolescent himself who says this, in a story by John Barth ("Lost in the Funhouse"). To the contrary, this collection brings a refreshing slant to a period when "spazz-out" and "freak" carry life-shattering significance.

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