Can we start off talking about this cover art? Poor Carl is sitting there, in the snow, all alone. He does have that magnificent head of hair. Did I love him a little bit when I was 15? Indeed I did. Plus when I read the book, I got those sick pathological adolescent girl-thoughts. Ohhhh. Poor Carl, I’ll take care of you. Because that’s real healthy.
Oh, and also when I was looking for this image, I found another one. Which I like a lot better and which 15 year old me would have also like a whole lot better…. if you know what I mean.
So…Carl Staggers is sixteen years old. He lives in Milwaukee with his single mother who is a drunken whore. She’s constantly bringing home classy guys and says she’s going to make them Carl’s new daddy. (One particular guy’s claim to classiness, is that he calls the pisser the pissoir. Which is fucking hilarious. I love calling the pot either the pissoir or the crappier.) Carl, who is completely anti-social, has moved into the basement of his house because he can’t stand the sound of his mom’s headboard slamming against the wall night after night. Also, because he fixes stolen stereos. Oh yeah, it seems our Carl is an electronics savant. He gets in with a gang of thieves and he becomes the go-to repair guy for the operation. He makes a tidy sum of money doing this as well.
You see, Carl is a man with a plan. He’s going to make all this money, get the biggest scholarship for electrical engineering at a college as far away from Milwaukee as possible, then become so successful an engineer that big corporations are going to be fighting for him upon graduation. Then he’s going to marry a nice girl (he’s imagined a dark haired girl named Jennifer) and buy a nice house in the ‘burbs. And he’s going to forget his miserable fucking childhood.
But, dear Carl, things don’t always work out the way we want them to, do they? Mom has this nasty habit of getting arrested on small charges, mostly drunken disorderlies. But one night she’s driving drunk and gets into a hit and run. Then when the cops come for her, she has the brilliant idea to kick one of them in the nuts. So, mom goes into the clink and Carl is sent to a foster home.
Carl bails mom out, using his stolen stereo money, which makes him sick. But you know, she’s his mom and he does kinda love her. Mom gets sent to a 45 day stint in rehab followed by god knows how long in a halfway house. While she’s gone, Carl is sent up north, to the very rural Blind River, Wisconsin to his Aunt and Uncle’s house to live. Have I mentioned Carl is a city boy? And he barely knows his Aunt, Uncle or cousin? Does this spell fish out of water disaster or what?
Guess who hates Hillbilly High (formally known as Blind River High)? Carl does. His cousin, Bob is a complete country boy stereotype, to the point it’s uncomfortable to read about him. They do all these crazy country-folk type things, like get their milk straight from the neighbor’s cows, get their own eggs from their own hens, go hunting, etc. And Bob calls his parents Ma and Pa. Yee-haw or whatever. I’m with Carl, I escaped rural life as soon as I could too. Though my rural was kind of very rural suburb. I think it’s called an Exurb. (Holy shit, exurb is in my spell check!)
So their neighboring farm is run by a family called the Amundsens. Their youngest daughter, Signa, is in Carl and Bob’s class at Hillbilly High. She falls for Carl. But Carl is busy being the ol’ professor and not talking to his classmates. Until….one day in Chemistry class, the teacher is fucking up an explanation of electricity and Carl corrects him and his secret about being a brainiac is out. And everyone wants to be his friend. Especially Signa if you know what I mean. Wink wink, nudge nudge.
Carl likes Signa, but he’s obviously all fucked up from having an alkie for a mom and doesn’t know how to have a real relationship. So he takes her to a dance, but hates it and it’s so fumbling and sad. And poor Carl. All the hicks take him on a snipe hunt. (for my readers who were fortunate enough NOT to grow up in a rural area…A-I’m totally jealous, but mostly B-DON’T’ FALL FOR THE FUCKING SNIPE HUNT! It’s a joke. It’s a really lame way for hillbillies to think they got one up on you slick city-folk. Lame, for reals).
So time goes on and Carl starts to kind of get used to living in Blind River. But he still has some anti-social tendencies. And he and Signa start to really hit it off. And they make out a lot, but they call it necking, which I just can’t get behind at all. Maybe they have the secks, I don’t know. It’s kind of hinted at, but not said for sure.
Carl’s mom gets out of rehab and is sent to a halfway house. She seems to be getting well, which makes Carl happy. But because he’s a child of an alcoholic, he can’t allow himself to get too happy for her.
Then the shit hits the fan. Carl’s thieving friends back in Milwaukee get busted and naturally, Carl’s name, as the brains of the operation, comes up. And he’s in for a heap o’ trouble. So he dumps Signa, because she of course deserves a better dude than him. And he’s convinced he has no future. So his court date is set for the same day his mom gets out of the halfway house. And he plans on leaving Blind River to move back in with mom.
At his hearing, Carl is given probation and restitution, and ordered to attend Alateen. Then when it’s time for his social worker to tell the judge in whose custody to release Carl, he has a change of heart. Carl asks if he can go to Blind River. He thinks he was doing well there and can’t handle sitting around Milwaukee waiting for his mom to relapse. In what’s a pretty sad scene, Carl has to explain this to his mom.
‘She hugged me again….”Don’t worry about me for a while…When I get straightened out I’ll come and see you guys.”
“Mom, I’m never coming back.”
I could feel her tears on my neck, and she hugged me tighter, “I know Baby.” We stood that way for a couple of minutes, then she wiped her eyes and tried to smile, “It’s time to go. You’ve got family waiting.”
Gah! Mom you spent the whole book being extremely frustrating and selfish, but you totally redeemed yourself here!
So guess what Carl does to get restitution money? He and Bob start a firewood business. Like a couple of country boys.
- Could someone please tell me how to pronounce the name Signa? It is surprisingly not listed on babynamewizard.com. Which is the greatest baby name website on the whole World Wide Internets. Is it Sig-na? Is it Sign-a? Is it Sin-ya? Who knows?
- Um, the book is only OK, but really compulsively readable. The dialog is actually pretty stiff and uncomfortable. But holy YA angst! This is the second angstiest book I’ve read for my blog, (after The Wind Blows Backward, which is the granddaddy of teen angst books). Still I’m a sucker and I had trouble putting it down, even knowing what happens at the end.
- When I read this book when I was a kid, I fucking HATED that the author used the phrase “Ya,” instead of “Yeah.” Then I saw Fargo and I realized that people in that part of the country really do say “Ya!” Also, whenever Aunt June would talk, I totally heard her in Marge Gundersen’s voice.
- Carl’s social worker is totally Mr. Rosso from Freaks & Geeks. (Sorry…still watching that show. I love you Netflix).
- Sorry about all the Hillbilly jokes. You guys know I kid because I love. And like Ben Folds sang, “There are a hundred ways to cover your redneck past.” I just haven’t found enough of them. But all kidding aside, the snipe hunt is fucking lame.
- Heh. Carl’s illegal stereo stealing-fixing-selling business is called S&M electronics. Carl created the name to be funny. And here’s the uncomfortable conversation that took place in my house after I fist read it: Me: Mom, this guy in this book named his business S&M Electronics and said that’s funny. What’s so funny about S&M? Mom: Ummm…..