Ah, to be a young teen in the suburbs in the '80s. Hanging out in friends' basements, listening to excruciating music; wondering whether to smoke that joint, and if so, how; mangling the verb "ir" in Spanish class. Chicago native Joseph Weisberg strikes these and many other notes in his sweetly rollicking first novel, whose hero, Jeremy Reskin, offers us an intermittently punctuated and sometimes agrammatical account of his sentimental education.
First-person teen narratives must contend not only with the ghost of Holden Caulfield but with the more recent specters of adolescents conjured by many memoirists. A novelist treading this territory runs many risks: the risk of being too cute, too knowing, too familiar, too programmatic. Given the endless parade of books, TV shows and movies on teen themes, a writer may find himself being unwittingly boring or gratuitously shocking. Weisberg navigates this field with great humor and a certain aplomb; he presents his Jeremy as writing, not speaking, his story, and while Weisberg doesn't do much with the writerly conceit, it does allow him greater latitude for exploring and exploiting the cliche-ridden awkwardness of adolescent expression, exacerbated by the bizarre writing rituals we force upon high schoolers ("I'm starting right before the beginning. That way you'll get to know some of the main characters like my parents and my 2 sisters even though they're not really the main main characters.").
It's a marvel that Weisberg's chosen limitation, this first-person narrator, doesn't usually cloy. This opening, by the way, is not typical of the range of Weisberg's style, which is generally not too self-referential and rarely faux-naif. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Jeremy's voice is its necessary comic, decent anchor.
Teen heroes usually bear a double burden. They are meant to be both typical and special--Everyman with a large dose of American individualism and exceptionalism. That many teens speak a jargon only partly intelligible to those younger and older makes the problem of first-person novelistic expression even more vivid: Do you go with teenspeak, gesture toward it, avoid it? How do you render a sensibility that is by definition immature?
While reading the novel, I worried that it might be caught between the categories of young-adult and unmarked--that is, adult--literary fiction; novels from "Huckleberry Finn" to "The Catcher in the Rye" have been thus caught, wrongly. It would be interesting to compare Jeremy's ruminations about his parents, sisters, teachers, love (or sex) objects, with those of, say, Judy Blume's heroes. Blume addresses herself brilliantly and sympathetically to young adolescents; Weisberg clearly addresses those who remember, ruefully, their adolescent fumblings. What makes this novel appealing to adults is the panache with which Weisberg signals the benign limits and sure strengths of his narrator.
Jeremy lives in the New Jersey suburb of Hutch Falls, plays soccer, goes to class, eats dinner with his family, hangs out with friends, pines for the new girl, visits New York City, ponders sex and goes to the prom. Not terribly exciting stuff, but middle-class teen life need not be about obvious excitement. The energy here comes from the tilt of Jeremy's mind and expression: his relative openness to weird kids, his swift characterizations, his combination of sympathy and satire.
Weisberg has gotten certain things just right: the elliptical, hugely significant exchanges between laconic boys and ruminative girls; the rapid-fire, genially insulting patter among friends; the razor-sharp and razor-thin edges of adolescent social classification; the attachment of teens to certain objects and habits; the alien glamor of New York City, blacks and gays for the liberal, white, suburban teen; the bemused fondness of a basically happy child for his parents; the obsessional loops of the adolescent mind.
Several passages made me laugh out loud. Jeremy's formulaic, botched exchanges with his object of desire, Renee Shopmaker, in Spanish class, are especially good. His foray into the world of pornographic magazines is hilarious and fresh and surprising; so too are the descriptions of family dinners. Weisberg provides great set-pieces throughout the book: a convincing riff, complete with excerpts, on the impenetrability of Shakespeare's language; the annual visit to dad's tailor on the Lower East Side; Jeremy's attempt to cook a Nigerian dish to fulfill a class assignment (in a chapter called "The Banana Maloosa Fiasco"); a trip to the mall with his sister and mother.
There is something very delicate amidst all the comedy. Jeremy's assessments of his sisters and parents are sharp and generous. The largely unspoken solidarity between him and his younger sister is wonderfully dramatized, for example when she picks out the right slacks for him to wear on a date. One measure of Weisberg's confident, subtle handling of this material is the way we understand what Jeremy registers and what he fails to register--the romantic signals of his friend Gillian, for example. Weisberg has a particular knack for getting down the feel of human exchanges that tend toward what is called the phatic function: those exchanges in which what matters is not what people are saying to each other but that they are talking companionably together (Think bonobo monkeys happily grooming one another: The contact is more important than the content.). So it doesn't matter that Jeremy doesn't quite pay attention to his father's elaborate description of his current legal case. What does matter is that the man and his son are able to sustain, genially, a conversation that acknowledges both of their vivid lives, however opaque they may sometimes be to each other.
Despite its clear social and pop-cultural coordinates, this is by no means a social-issues novel. Its world is as wide and as narrow as Jeremy's consciousness. There is nothing terribly special about Jeremy's year, nothing too special about Jeremy. He seems to be a kind of Jimmy Stewart figure--or perhaps the kind of guy who might have been played by a very young Tom Hanks. Jeremy is neither rebellious nor excessively conformist; he is an absorptive, reflective but not terribly talkative young man. He is not alienated; he is simply, thoughtfully, en route: occasionally obtuse, more usually alert, sometimes misunderstanding himself and his associates and yet somehow wholly himself.
This is in its own way an extremely modest novel, and I mean that as praise. Like his hero, Weisberg rarely shows off. He does not score points through or off his characters. He is a gentle comic concerned to illuminate small, oblique movements of consciousness as well as the social comedy of everyday life.
Jeremy's occasional flights into fantasy--in which he punches out an adversary, has hot sex with Renee after rescuing her from danger, and so on--seem to me the weakest link in the book. The conceit is good, the execution less so: We lose track of the distinctiveness of Jeremy's voice, its speaking tone. I wondered, too, whether such episodes--a few paragraphs now and then, at first integrated into the narrative but later less so--were inspired by the more-experimental moments in TV shows like "Ally McBeal," in which characters' thoughts and fantasies are sometimes briefly enacted. In "10th Grade," these episodes have a TV--or, more precisely, a cinematic--feel. They might work as movie sequences, but their longer elaborations don't do much for the novel.
A novel like this can (or should) be written only once in a career. I suspect that the winning ingenuousness here could not be repeated without something going stale. It will be interesting to see if this book turns out to have launched Weisberg's career as a novelist. Whether or not he continues, Weisberg has written a charming, utterly American first novel.
Maureen McLane is a fellow at the Harvard University Society of Fellows, a poet and the author of "Romanticism and the Human Sciences