Sunday, October 4, 2015
I had places to be, and I was saturated. I was a walking puddle, a character from a Peanuts cartoon.
I had two things in my bag, in my long walk from damp to embarrassing. One of them was Dana Reinhardt's oh-so-perfect forthcoming novel (I apologize in advance that you will have to wait for it until next spring), Tell Us Something True (Wendy Lamb Books, Random House Children's Books).
May I preface this by saying that I have enormous respect for Dana Reinhardt—as a writer, as a person. Despite her impressive breadth as an author, her astonishing talent with character, story, and sentences, and her cache of awards, you will not find her out there on the circuit showboating. You will not hear her raising toasts to herself.
So 1) I'm predisposed to love Dana Reinhardt, and 2) I felt hugely blessed to receive an early copy of her book. But 3) Even I could not imagine how utterly un-put-downable this new novel is. About a teenage boy who is dumped by a girl and finds himself (on his long walk home) standing before a fading sign—black words on white: A SECOND CHANCE.
This dumped kid, River: He feels he needs a second chance.
And so he enters into this community of teens who are struggling to break free of one kind of addiction or another. He feels at peace. It's his turn to talk and he fables up something. He confesses that he is addicted to weed. It's not true. It's not even close to true. But if River holds onto (then embellishes) this ready myth, he'll always have a chair in this circle.
He wants a chair in that circle.
This is the premise of Dana's book. But Dana never barters with mere premise. She is a storyteller with a heart, a writer (and a mom) who understands that characters make for story, not theses. That the honorable thing to do with a novelistic set-up is to find out who lives inside the chosen frame. Who really lives there. What they think. How they hope. How they screw up. How they take first steps toward forgiveness. How they continually readjust the way they see the world and themselves.
There's not a single throw-away character in Tell Us Something True. No cardboard constructions representing An Idea. There are best friends, an adorable half sister, good parents, white neighborhoods, Mexican ones, missed buses, the romance of imagination. There's humor and infinite humanity. There's line after line of prose so good I kept pumping my fist, and let me tell you something: I didn't want this book to end.
I despair, sometimes, at the YA category. At trends that suffocate original impulses. At books that sell on the basis of a hook and authorial ambition (and little else). At copy cat voices. At plot-point checklists. At self-serving declarations. At marketing machines.
But then along comes Dana Reinhardt, who writes character and considered plots, who quietly, then boldly escalates her ideas, who gets you all caught up inside the family of action, who leaves you running from place to place in a storm, desperate to return to her story.
Tell Us Something True is hope; it is humanity; it offers a master class in ultimately accepting our own impossible imperfections. Original, funny, wrenching, real, and intelligently surprising, it's bound to endure. It might even heal the many cracks between us.