Friday, October 17, 2008

The Last Exit to Normal--Michael Harmon (Book Review)

In The Last Exit to Normal, a new twist on the classic "fish out of water" story, Ben Campbell's dad and his "mom-dad," Edward, hope to keep him out of trouble by moving from Spokane to a small Montana town. They move in with Edward's mother Miss Mae, who makes it clear she takes no guff from anyone and has no qualms about whacking Ben with a wooden spoon if guff even crosses his mind. Ben's varying attempts to reject his new home and to fit in pull the reader along on a journey that, like life, never seems to go in a straight line.

In addition to Ben and his family, Harmon populates his novel with intriguing characters who buck stereotypes: the small-town sheriff who's anything but rigid, the cute farm girl who's smarter than Ben is. The antagonists are no less unique: creepy neighbors who judge Ben based on his parents and his looks, the ex-boyfriend of the local girl he's smitten with...and the homophobia that plagues him from both inside and out, threatening to destroy his relationship with his fathers.

Near the end, I thought things took an odd turn as Harmon ramped up the action to a level that might tantalize thriller fans, but left this reader wondering if an editor had kidnapped (booknapped?) the last chapters, sending Harmon a ransom note:
Add moRe tHrilLs & acTioN oR U wiLL
nEveR seE youR prEttY litTLe booK aGaiN.
After reading Harmon's essay, Why I Write What I Write--which, by the way, I highly recommend, especially if you teach or love any boys between 10 and 18)--I'd say it was more likely Harmon himself, keeping his finger on the pulse of the guys he's writing for, knowing what keeps them reading. He's not writing for their moms, after all. Even if said moms happen to think he's an author worth following.

Harmon lives in Spokane, Washington, and is also the author of Skate, a book about a teen who runs away with his younger brother. I enjoyed this book last year and just approved for my going-on-twelve year old who's working on a story of his own with a similar theme.

For the soundtrack: Pearl Jam covering Bruce Springsteen; the song is titled Growin' Up. (Warning: this live recording has a brief r-rated moment as Eddie Vedder uses a colorful word near the end)


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