The Big Nothing

The Big Nothing

4.5 2
by Adrian Fogelin

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Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature - Jonathan Garren
When fourteen-year-old Justin wants to escape the world, he goes to "The Big Nothing" where he can be himself and forget about his parents' problems, his brother Duane's departure to fight in the Iraq war, and trying to compensate for his brother's absence while his mother battles depression and the threat of a divorce. As Justin faces all of these challenges, he develops a crush on a popular girl at his school. Even these affections cause certain social problems because he is white and she is black, but given all of the other emotionally taxing issues in the novel, the conflicts surrounding interracial dating seem to be marginalized. The author tries to work around this by creating a likeable character in Justin, but even this cannot compensate for the book's portrayal of society's unproblematic acceptance of the interracial relationship. This novel would still be an excellent choice for reluctant readers since it covers a wide range of themes and problems common to contemporary adolescents. Given the realistic possibility of loved ones being shipped off to war for long periods of time, this novel offers a relevant look at contemporary teen life.
Justin, age 13, is going through a rough patch. His beloved brother Duane has enlisted in the army and is being shipped out to Iraq; his father has left, perhaps for good; and his depressed mother can barely get out of bed most days. To top it all off, Justin's best friend, Ben, has a girlfriend, and Justin feels deserted. But there are rays of light—he forms a friendship, and perhaps something more, with his African American classmate Jemmie, and her grandmother starts to give him piano lessons. Justin discovers that he has a talent for music, and he begins to understand more about relationships, too. Fogelin, the author of Crossing Jordan and other novels for YAs, sensitively describes Jordan's world and his conflicting emotions as he tries to deal with his situation at home and with shifting relationships with his friends. An absorbing and well-written tale. KLIATT Codes: J—Recommended for junior high school students. 2004, Peach-tree, 235p., Ages 12 to 15.
—Paula Rohrlick
Children's Literature
Justin's world is falling apart. His parents' constant bickering was bad, but he never thought his dad would leave. His best friend, Ben, keeps ditching him for a girl, and now his brother is shipping out for Iraq. Mom is fighting depression and Justin tries to be her "Sunshine boy," even though he knows he cannot measure up to the image he has of his older brother. On top of everything else, Justin finds himself with feelings for a girl. He wants to pull into himself and let the big nothing take over. His love of music and some supportive adults—along with his own quirky sense of humor—help him deal with these all too common adolescent struggles. Fogelin uses clear prose to capture the voice of a fourteen-year-old boy, getting inside his mind and conveying to the reader the day-to-day disappointments and triumphs. While the anguish of family members with a loved one in the Iraq war is accurately portrayed, another issue is treated with less care. Justin, a white boy, is falling for a black girl and this fact is a non-issue in the context of the book. In spite of this, the reader will be pulled into the story, rooting for Justin in his relationships with his parents, his brother and his friends. 2004, Peachtree Publishers, Ages 10 to 16.
—Wendy M. Smith-D'Arezzo
To escape family problems, Justin Riggs sometimes escapes into "The Big Nothing" -- a place he can be who he is and not worry about his mom and dad splitting up, his older brother shipping out to Iraq, or whether Jamie Lewis knows he's alive or not. Justin is musically inclined and, when visiting one day after school at Jamie's house, discovers the piano and Jamie's grandmother, Nana Grace. When Nana offers to help him learn to play, he begins spending every spare minute at Jamie's practicing. The angst he seems to feel while his Dad and brother are away is diminished by his connection to the music, and he doesn't mind being around Jamie so much, either! Written more for middle school, Fogelin writes a sensitive, yet humorous, account of a boy coming to grips with adulthood too soon. Highly recommended. 2004, Peachtree Press, 235 pp., Ages young adult.
—Nancy McFarlin
School Library Journal
Gr 7-9-Pudgy, quiet Justin Riggs, 13, has a lot to say, at least internally. His father leaves home; his mother is so shattered by arguments, put-downs, and suspicion that she withdraws to bed; and his older brother, Duane, has enlisted and is sent to Iraq. His best friend has a girlfriend, leaving little time for him, and he feels abandoned. His coping mechanism is to withdraw into a state that Justin thinks of as "The Big Nothing." However, popular Jemmie just won't let him sit in silence, and the more she interacts with him, the more interested in her he becomes. When her warm and worldly-wise grandmother discovers his talent for playing the piano, he finds a more productive escape. However, the bills keep piling up at home, he may be failing English, and he worries about his brother. Continuing her exploration of a Tallahassee neighborhood and its middle schoolers first introduced in Crossing Jordan (Peachtree, 2000), Fogelin plots a thoroughly engaging story of teen angst, multicultural and political divisions, and a natural desire of neighbors to come to one another's aid. The characters may be doves, hawks, or m langes in between, but they are sincere in their beliefs and yet can find room in their hearts to pull together for Duane. Serious and humorous by turns, this seemingly simple story is actually quite complex but not weighty and will be enthusiastically embraced.-Cindy Darling Codell, Clark Middle School, Winchester, KY Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Big brother Duane is off in boot camp, and Justin is left trying to hold the parental units together. Fat, acne-ridden, and missing his best friend Ben, who's in the throes of his first boy-girl relationship with Cass, Justin's world is dreary. It gets worse when he realizes that all of his mother's suspicions about his father are probably true, and that Dad may not return from his latest business trip. Surprisingly ultra-cool Jemmie, who is also missing her best friend, Cass, actually recognizes his existence and her grandmother invites Justin to use their piano in the afternoons when Jemmie's at cross-country practice. The "big nothing" place, where Justin retreats in time of trouble, is a rhythmic world and soon begins to include melody and provide Justin with a place to express himself. Practice and discipline accompany this gradual exploration of his talent. The impending war in Iraq gives this story a definite place in time, and its distinct characters make it satisfying and surprisingly realistic. Misfit finds fit. (Fiction. YA)

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Product Details

Peachtree Publishers, Ltd.
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
6.74(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.64(d)
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

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The Big Nothing

By Adrian Fogelin


Copyright © 2004 Adrian Fogelin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-9802-4


Tuesday, January 14, 2003

When I get home from school both of the Units are still alive and hanging out in the kitchen together—things seem to be looking up. Then Dad opens the newspaper with a rattle. "I have a sales trip next week," he says. "I'll be gone a couple days, three max."

Barricaded behind the sports page, Dad doesn't see Mom's worried look. The only thing that gets through to him is The Voice—Mom could pop balloons with that voice. "A sales trip?" she says. "You just got back from the last sales trip, Jack."

The alarm goes off in my head: fight alert ... do something ... do something. I quit shoveling my after-school bowl of Coco Puffs into my mouth. "Hey, this is great," I say. "You two are talking to each other!"

It would have gotten a big laugh if my brother Duane had said it.

Mom stares indignantly at the raised newspaper. "This trip wouldn't be to Atlanta, would it?" Without makeup, Mom looks heavier and semi-erased.

Dad doesn't glance up from the page. "There she goes again, Justin, giving me the third degree. Tell her I'm an okay guy."

"Tell her yourself, Dad." I feel like a wishbone getting pulled between them.

"Is the trip to Atlanta or isn't it?" she repeats.

"I confess! I confess!" Dad drops the paper and holds up his hands. "I'm going to Atlanta!" He reaches across the table and pats her hand. "I'm a traveling salesman, hon. I could stay home, but you do seem to like to eat."

Mom looks as if he slapped her.

"It was a joke, Kathy. A joke. Don't be so sensitive."

"I'm going out," I announce.

"Hey," Dad calls after me, "don't leave me alone with this crazy woman!"

The screen bangs shut behind me. That was a cheap shot about Mom liking to eat, but she was nagging him. She's always nagging him.

Up until two weeks ago, at this point in a fight, I'd be out of here. In less than a minute I'd be knocking on Ben Floyd's door. We'd play video games, listen to music—no one ever yells at his house. But all of a sudden everything's different. My best friend has a girlfriend. He's probably over at Cass's right now, sitting on the couch with her and her sister, watching Oprah.

"All you do is lie to me!" Mom's voice soaks through the screen. She's crying now, definitely. I sit down on the porch steps.

"There goes that overactive imagination of yours again," Dad says, and he laughs.

I pull my head down between my shoulders. I hate it when he laughs at her.

Maybe if I yell that the house is on fire they'll stop. Maybe if I start bleeding a whole lot.... I can practically hear my brother: Great plan, Jus. Bleed to death, that'll stop 'em.

I wish I'd gone up to his old room and closed the door. Nothing gets to me there.

"Who is she this time, Jack?"

"Nobody," says Dad. "After a day with customers I'm bushed. I go to the motel and turn on the tube."

Dad sells supplies and equipment to mom-and-pop restaurants. Seems like half the time he lives at a Motel 6. When he comes in from a sales trip, he kicks off his shoes and shouts, "Jack is back!" When we were young, Duane and I would pound down the stairs and jump on him. Mom would too.

I don't know when things changed, but they did.

Since Duane enlisted, Dad's away more than ever. When he is here all Mom does is give him the third degree about the girlfriends he supposedly has on the road.

In the wedding picture on Dad's dresser, Mom looks hot, but she's put on the pounds since then. Dad's tall and he's still really built—he's also bald, but on him, bald works. I can see why she gets jealous. But does he mess around? No way. Dad is just a friendly guy.

I drum my hands quietly on the step on either side of me.

"Nobody, huh?" Mom sounds less weepy, more ticked. "Then explain this!"

Suddenly, there's a third voice coming from inside the house. Mom's playing a message on the answering machine: exhibit A. I can't make out the words, but I don't have to. She's always confronting him with bogus stuff like a smudge of lipstick that's really ketchup, a whiff of perfume that's just deodorizer from the latest motel.

I drum a little faster.

"Well?" Mom says when the message ends. "I'm waiting, Jack." Then she repeats, at the top of her lungs, "I'm waiting!"

I don't want to be here any more. I've had enough. It's time to go away.

To get where I'm going I don't even have to stand up. I just focus on the rhythm I'm drumming and hunt for ways to make it more elaborate. If it's complex enough I can climb inside it and sort of disappear. I get a little help. Someone I can't see is running in the street. I play my rhythm against the slap of sneakers.

I time my breathing so it matches every fourth step. Breathe in on four, out on four; in on four, out on four. The front yard blurs. The exact moment I drain out of the me who cares and pour into The Big Nothing is like the second between being awake and asleep; it's hard to pinpoint. But as soon as it happens, the Battle of the Units fades to a fuzzy blah-blah-blah.

Ladies and gentlemen, Justin Riggs has just left his body.

I've almost forgotten that the slap-slap is a pair of running feet when Jemmie Lewis flashes by. I only see her for a second as she passes the gap where the path cuts through the hedge that surrounds our yard.

"Hey, Big Rig!" She skips backwards a few steps and reappears. Her skinny ribs heave. She breathes through her mouth. When she leans forward to rest her hands on her thighs, the belly button below the edge of her crop top winks.

"You warm enough?" I call to her. "It is January."

"This is Florida, Big." She trots up the walk, her dark skin slick with sweat. "Besides, anyone moving as fast as me generates a lot of heat." She grabs the rail and does a couple of deep knee bends. Her cornrows zig and zag like lightning bolts. I don't know why she stopped, but I hope she runs off before the Units fire up again.

She flops down a couple of steps below me. "You're awful quiet, Big."

This is weird. Unless you count arguing over the score in a pickup game, I don't think I've ever had a real conversation with Jemmie Lewis. Jemmie is Cass's friend, Cass is Ben's friend, and Ben is my friend. So what does that make Jemmie and me? Friends twice removed?

And why is she calling me "Big" all of a sudden? Because I'm not—at least in the vertical sense.

She rests her pointy elbows on the top stair and leans back. Why is she getting comfortable?

"Shouldn't you be running with Cass?" I ask.

"I don't always run with Cass," she says, scratching her knee.

"Sure you do." Until Ben and Cass hooked up, the girls were inseparable.

She scratches her kneecap like she wants to draw blood. "Well, where's your best buddy Ben?"

"I don't always hang with Ben," I say.

"Sure you do."

Something smashes inside the house.

Jemmie rolls her eyes my way. "What was that?"

"TV show."

She pops to her feet and claps twice. "Come on, let's run!"

"Uh ... no thanks." The only one who can keep up with Jemmie is Cass, and she's with Ben, watching Oprah. "You go right ahead, though. Don't let me hold you up."

She thrusts out a hip and rests her knuckles on it; she taps her foot. She's doing her black girl, don't-mess-with-me thing. The easiest way to get along with Jemmie is to go along—but my running sucks. I notice the wheels of my skateboard poking out of the tall grass. "Okay, okay." I stand and casually flip the board with a toe.

Wheels, it turns out, are pretty cool. Within fifty yards I'm smoking Jemmie-the-flash.

I slow a little and a hand clamps my belt. The zizzzz of the wheels changes pitch as she hops on the back of the board.

Jemmie is one of the top five popular girls in our class. Why would she risk being seen riding with a guy who looks like the Pillsbury Doughboy with zits?

When Dad passed down the good-looks genes, my brother got them all. I could run around with straws up my nose or set myself on fire. No self-respecting girl would notice me, especially not a girl like Jemmie. But I don't mind her hanging on the back of my belt. I could get used to it.

We circle the block. We've just pulled even with the gap in our hedge when the door flies open and a pair of Dad's golf shoes sails out. Tongues flapping, they tumble down the steps.

I drag my foot and we lurch to a stop. Jemmie thumps into my back. "What's going on?" she asks, hopping off the board. She points at the shoes on the lawn.

The shoes are followed by a nine iron and Duane's ancient cat, Gizmo, who darts out the open door. The cat skims the ground like a shadow. The nine iron nearly beans him as he breaks for the bushes.

Jemmie raises an eyebrow. "TV?"

"Reality TV." I plant a foot on the sidewalk and shove off as hard as I can.

"Would you cool it, Big? Would you just slow down?" I hear Jemmie running flat-out, but I keep right on kicking the board forward. Watching Dad's junk land on the lawn makes me want to barf.

I feel a jerk as she grabs my belt and jumps on again. Riding together, we careen down the hill and sail around the corner onto Roberts Avenue. We almost get hit by a guy backing out of his driveway.

We lace our fingers through the chain link. "This is pitiful," I huff. "Out of all the places in the world, we end up here."

On the other side of the fence is the school basketball court. Past that is Monroe Middle School, the place where we just finished wasting the day.

Jemmie steps off the back of the board. "We could go somewhere else."

"Like where?"

"USA store?"

"You have any money on you?" I ask.


"Me neither."

"Cemetery? Cass and I go there sometimes."

"Nah." Ben and I go to the cemetery too. We play this game called "Dead-Guy Baseball." The only equipment needed is a Superball, and I have one in my pocket, but Jemmie would probably think it was stupid.

"Wanna sit?" she asks. We walk onto the court and press our backs against the fence. The wire creaks as we slide down.

"Hey, chain link is kind of comfortable," I say after a while. "Like a lawn chair."

Note to self: Quit talking.

She picks up a pebble and scrapes a wavy white line onto the blacktop. "Wish we had a basketball."

"Yeah, me too." Sure I do. When we play pickup games, the girls beat the guys more than half the time. One-on-one, she'd cream me.

I listen to her breathe. Why is she staring at my feet?

"Nice kicks," she says.

"Oh, yeah. It took me years to get 'em just right." My sneakers are so blown that my socks pooch out the sides. But the leg situation is worse than the shoes. Hers are a good three inches longer than mine. I'd like to point out to her that her height is all in her legs, that she's only about an inch taller than me.

She has to bend her knee to nudge the toe of my sneaker with hers. "You miss Ben?" she asks.

"Yeah, I guess." I slide down on my tail. My legs get longer. "You miss Cass?"

"No." She jerks her knees up and hugs them with her skinny arms. "I'm mad at her. I mean, I'm her best friend, not him. I'd never dump her if I got a boyfriend. Would you dump Ben for a girl?"

"Uhh ..." I try to imagine me with a girl.

"I know you wouldn't," she says.

I'm still trying to imagine myself with a girl when Cass trots up, ponytail swinging. "There you are, Jemmie!" Her sneakers squeak to a stop. "I've been looking for you every where! Oh, hi, Justin."

Jemmie stares at a cut on Cass's shin. "Thought your dad didn't let you shave."

Cass tucks one pale, freckly leg behind the other. "Lou says guys don't like hairy legs. She lent me her razor." I blush. Do girls usually talk about shaving their legs in front of guys? It's like I'm not here.

"Since when have you ever listened to your ditsy sister? Going with Ben is making you crazy, girl! You're changing so fast I don't even know you."

"All I did was shave my legs! Come on, Jemmie," Cass pleads. "Let's run like we always do, okay?" But Jemmie doesn't answer. "Jemmie ... are you mad at me?"

Jemmie jumps to her feet. I'm thinking girl fight, but instead of laying into Cass, Jemmie sprints toward the track. Cass chases after her.

"Nice talking to you," I shout as they shrink in the distance. "I'm going now. Catch you later." I go the long way to Ben's, bypassing my street.

Ben and I lounge, our necks resting against the top of the front seat of a pink Cadillac we call the Pimpmobile—at least when his dad isn't listening.

"Were the girls getting along okay?" Ben asks.

"When I left, they were running." He nods, then we both stare through the P-mobile's windshield at the junkers that crowd the Floyds' backyard.

Junker is our term too. Ben's dad, who teaches auto mechanics at the high school, prefers the term "Vehicles of Promise."

My brother Duane spent lots of Saturdays and after-school hours here, messing with cars. The blue Camaro with one green door parked next to the tree used to be his. He could've given it to me—I'll have my permit in a year and a half. Instead he sold it to a guy named Marcus. I notice that the windows are taped. "Is Marcus going to paint it?" I ask Ben.

"Yeah," Ben says. "He's gonna do it in gold flake."

"That'll be tacky."

The truth is, as long as the car stays the same, I can almost see Duane out there in a greasy T-shirt, his head under the hood. I'll probably freak when the green door goes.

Ben cranks the radio all the way up, then tosses a piece of microwave popcorn into the air. It bounces off the head liner before he catches it in his mouth. "Two points," he shouts over the pounding rap on the radio.

"What's the deal?" I ask, digging into the bag. "Two points if it rebounds, one for an air shot?"

By the time the setting sun touches the wiper blades, Ben's beating me by thirty-seven points. The clock on the dash says six-twenty. The Floyds eat at six-thirty on the dot.

Maybe he'll invite me.

"Ben?" his mom calls from the back door. "Ben, honey, Cass is on the phone. Be quick. Supper's ready."

"Girlfriends," he grumbles. "They never leave you alone." But he's out of the car in a heartbeat.

I call, "See ya, Ben-honey," as he sprints to the house.

Skating home I catch a stone with my back wheel and go down on my butt. Could the day get any better? I kick the board up and carry it the rest of the way. It's getting dark.

I slide through the gap in the hedge and scope out the situation. No shoes on the lawn, no golf clubs.

As I cross the yard something glints in the grass. I bend down and pick up one of Dad's cuff links. I straighten and notice that the Town Car is gone, only Mom's rust-bucket Corolla is in the driveway. They're probably at AJ's Sports Bar having a beer, or maybe they're out for supper; they do stuff like that after a fight. I cram the cuff link into my pocket.

I'm about to fish the key out of the fake gas lamp on the wall, but I try the door on the off chance they forgot to lock up. It swings open. There's no note from Mom on the coffee table either. The Units are getting slack.

Inside, all the lights are out. The living room looks as murky as the bottom of the sea—just the conditions Duane used to look for when he wanted to mess with my mind. See that movement behind the couch, Jus?

My brother had me convinced there were ninjas back there in the dark.

He wasn't always out to scare me. We did all kinds of stuff together, like wrestling and watching the tube. Once he got the Camaro, we rode around, me in the back, one of his buddies, like Craig or Diesel, riding shotgun.

Duane planned to go to college on a baseball scholarship. Three or four schools scouted him, but his grades were lousy. The closest he got to higher education was a job on the grounds crew at FSU. One afternoon, a recruiter named Frank called. He wasn't with a college ball team, he was with the Army. Duane signed anyway.

He wrote me every day when he was in Basic, no lie. I thought he was crazy, but he said he missed home. He never admitted he was scared but I could tell he was. He wrote me about belly-crawling across a pit in the pitch-dark, M60s firing a whisker above his butt. The Army doesn't mess around, he said.

Now he's finishing his MOS. That's Army for Military Occupational Specialty. When he's done, he'll be a Light-Wheel Vehicle Mechanic—specialty 63B.

The slacker hardly ever writes anymore, but he calls home every Monday night. Last night he bragged about what great shape he was in. I could whip your little butt, bro, one arm tied behind my back.

Oh, yeah? I said, Come on home and try it.

I sure would like to see him.

Right now would be good. If he were here he'd take charge of supper. He'd fix chicken fingers à la cheese sauce, or egg rolls on a bed of French fries, maybe macaroni dogs. If the fridge was empty, Duane and I would hit the golden arches or Taco Bell.


Excerpted from The Big Nothing by Adrian Fogelin. Copyright © 2004 Adrian Fogelin. Excerpted by permission of Peachtree.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Big Nothing 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When I started reading this book, I was not interested in starting another book at that time. However, once I started reading this book I couldn't put it down. I felt myself falling deeper and deeper in this imaginary world that the author had created. I absolutely loved it and wanted to read it over and over again after finishing it the first time. I absolutely recommend that you read this brilliant book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is such a cool book about a middle-school boy (7th or 8th grade. Pudgy, unpopular Justin Riggs is alone. His best friend has a girlfriend, the girl next door is popular (why would she like him?), and he finds solace only in eatng and slipping into the dreamland he calls 'The Big Nothing.'