The Barnes & Noble Review
Ever make a stupid comment or joke, or say something you obviously didn't mean? Of course you have -- we all have. Was it ever taken out of context? Written in the wake of some highly publicized school shootings, Big Mouth & Ugly Girl takes a look at the shock waves that emanate from an overheard comment muttered in sarcasm, and the overzealous reaction of the school and surrounding community that follows.
High school junior Matt Donaghy is considered an okay guy. He gets good grades, writes for the school paper, is in the Drama Club, and is known for his witty, if immature, humor. Students and teachers seem to like him. But one day he says something that makes a few classmates think he's out to bomb the school. The school principal is notified, the police are called in, and rumors are abuzz. Even his buddies doubt his innocence, and none of the guys come forward in his defense. There is, however, someone else who overheard Matt's statement and understood his mocking intent. School renegade Ursula Riggs, or "Ugly Girl" as she refers to herself, doesn't know Matt very well but reveals what she heard and the context in which it was said -- even though her parents instruct her to mind her own business. But even if Ursula can help Matt clear up this misunderstanding, will life at Rocky River High School ever be the same again?
In her first novel for young adults, acclaimed author Joyce Carol Oates delivers a striking story about friendship, family, community, support, betrayal, and self-confidence. This powerful novel makes us think carefully about what we say, to whom we say it, and what we mean. After closing this book, you'll ask yourself the same question I did: What if I'd said such a thing? (Michele D. Thomas)
Read an Excerpt
It was an ordinary January afternoon, a Thursday, when they came for Matt Donaghy.
They came for him during fifth period, which was Matt's study period, in room 220 of Rocky River High School, Westchester County.
Matt and three friends -- Russ, Stacey, Skeet -- had formed a circle with their desks at the rear of the room and were conferring, in lowered voices, about Matt's adaptation of a short story by Edgar Allan Poe into a one-act play; after school, in Drama Club, the four of them were scheduled to read William Wilson: A Case of Mistaken Identity for the club members and their advisor, Mr. Weinberg. It was a coincidence that Mr. Weinberg, who taught English and drama at Rocky River High, was in charge of fifth-period study hall, and when a knock came at the door of the room, Mr. Weinberg went to open it in his good-natured, sauntering manner.
“Yes, gentlemen? What can I do for you?”
Only a few students, sitting near the front of the room, took much notice. They might have registered a note of surprise in Mr. Weinberg's tone. But Mr. Weinberg, with his graying sandy hair worn longer than most of his male colleagues' at Rocky River, and a bristling beard that invited teasing, had a flair for dramatizing ordinary remarks, giving a light touch where he could. Calling strangers “gentlemen” was exactly in keeping with Mr. Weinberg's humor.
At the rear of the room, Matt and his friends were absorbed in the play, for which Matt was doing hurried revisions, typing away furiously on his laptop. Anxiously he'd asked his friends, “But does this work? Is it scary, is it funny, does it move?” Matt Donaghy hadsomething of a reputation at Rocky River for being both brainy and a comic character, but secretly he was a perfectionist, too. He'd been working on his one-act play William Wilson: A Case of Mistaken Identity longer than his friends knew, and he had hopes it would be selected to be performed at the school's Spring Arts Festival.
Typing in revisions, Matt hadn't been paying any attention to Mr. Weinberg at the front of the room talking with two men. Until he heard his name spoken -- “Matthew Donaghy?”
Matt looked up. What was this? He saw Mr. Weinberg pointing in his direction, looking worried. Matt swallowed hard, beginning to be frightened. What did these men, strangers, want with him? They wore dark suits, white shirts, plain neckties; and they were definitely not smiling. As Matt stared, they approached him, moving not together but along two separate aisles, as if to block off his route if he tried to escape. Afterward Matt would realize how swift and purposeful -- and practiced -- they were. If I'd made a break to get my backpack...If I'd reached into my pocket...
The taller of the two men, who wore dark-rimmed glasses with green-tinted lenses, said, “You're Matthew Donaghy?”
Matt was so surprised, he heard himself stammer, “Y-Yes. I'm -- Matt.”
The classroom had gone deathly silent. Everyone was staring at Matt and the two strangers. It was like a moment on TV, but there were no cameras. The men in their dark suits exuded an authority that made rumpled, familiar Mr. Weinberg in his corduroy jacket and slacks look ineffectual.
“Is something w-wrong? What do you want with -- me?”
Matt's mind flooded: Something had happened at home to his mother, or his brother, Alex...his father was away on business; had something happened to him? A plane crash...
The men were standing on either side of his desk, looming over him. Unnaturally close for strangers. The man with the glasses and a small fixed smile introduced himself and his companion to Matt as detectives with the Rocky River Police Department and asked Matt to step outside into the corridor. “We'll only need a few minutes.”
In his confusion Matt looked to Mr. Weinberg for permission -- as if the high school teacher's authority could exceed the authority of the police.
Mr. Weinberg nodded brusquely, excusing Matt. He too appeared confused, unnerved.
Matt untangled his legs from beneath his desk. He was a tall, lanky, whippet-lean boy who blushed easily. With so many eyes on him, he felt that his skin was burning, breaking into a fierce flamelike acne. He heard himself stammer, “Should I -- take my things?” He meant his black canvas backpack, which he'd dropped onto the floor beside his desk, the numerous messy pages of his play script, and his laptop computer.
Meaning too -- Will I be coming back?
The detectives didn't trouble to answer Matt, and didn't wait for him to pick up the backpack; one of them took charge of it, and the other carried Matt's laptop. Matt didn't follow them from the room; they walked close beside him, not touching him but definitely giving the impression of escorting him out of study hall. Matt moved like a person in a dream. He caught a glimpse of his friends' shocked faces, especially Stacey's. Stacey Flynn. She was a popular girl, very pretty, but a serious student; the nearest Matt Donaghy had to a girlfriend, though mostly they were “just friends,” linked by an interest in Drama Club. Matt felt a stab of shame that Stacey should be witnessing this. . . . Afterward he would recall how matter-of-fact and practiced the detectives obviously were, removing the object of their investigation from a public place.
What a long distance it seemed, walking from the rear of the classroom to the front, and to the door, as everyone stared. There was a roaring in Matt's ears. Maybe his house had caught on fire? No, a plane crash...Where was Dad, in Atlanta? Dallas? When was he coming home? Today, tomorrow? But was it likely that police would come to school to inform a student of such private news...Big Mouth & Ugly Girl (AER). Copyright © by Joyce Oates. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.