Not many American writers any longer know how to mix up a nice sour cocktail the way they used to. Novels these days are more the sort of drinks you sip by the pool: heavy on the fruit juice and syrup. But in Thumbsucker, Walter Kirn serves a strong glassful of bitters and wry.
Thumbsucker might be called a coming-of-age story, but it is not, thank God, at much risk of becoming a candidate for Oprah's Book Club. Unlike the narrators of standard-issue tales of adolescent angst and self-loathing, Kirn's downy-cheeked hero never outgrows his awkwardness, solipsism and ingrown strangeness. Instead, he nurtures them tenderly, like exotic pets in a secret terrarium.
And Justin Cobb's neuroses are more exotic than most. He is, as his dentist calls him, "the King Kong of oral obsessives," a teenager who half-involuntarily still sucks his thumb. "It was the one thing I'd always done," he explains. "Even breathing did not go back to the womb. Being part of a circle of shoulder, arm, hand, mouth, connected me to myself." When Justin kicks this habit -- if only temporarily -- his fixation finds other outlets: cigarettes, alcohol, pills, the school debate team ("an experiment in concentrating on what came out of my mouth instead of what went into it"), fly-fishing.
The circularity of Justin's thumb and mouth and arm reflects the circularity of Thumbsucker itself. This is a book that rejects the idea of growing up, of progress, of the transforming power of therapy and family bonding -- all the old American verities. As a book critic for New York magazine, Kirn is a sworn enemy of the anodyne, and in his own fiction he puts his money where his mouth is. The Cobb family as he portrays it manages to be both sympathetic and pathetic, each member with his or her own hoard of tics and eccentricities to match Justin's.
But Kirn's most memorable characters are his bit players. Structurally, Thumbsucker is an old-fashioned episodic novel. Like Huckleberry Finn (an even darker and more pessimistic book), it relates a young man's journey among a ragged job lot of charlatans and hucksters, each offering the hero his own dubious wisdom. In place of the Duke and the King, Kirn offers a sexually frustrated debate coach ("You can't just bob and weave your way through life. Fakes get found out. At bottom, the world is fair"), a dishonest gas-station owner ("Success is like sailing: sit back and catch the wind") and, best of all, Justin's oily and slightly sinister dentist, Perry Lyman ("The psyche is formed in the bassinet, the stroller. A cat drops a chewed mouse inside your crib and at seventeen you're a hand-washing fanatic").
Thumbsucker is set in Minnesota in the dreariest days of the Reagan era, and its period details are perfect. (An acid-dropping, nihilistic attendant at the gas station where Justin works wears "one of those T-shirts…that show the anatomy of the human body: all the muscles, bones, and organs in their actual colors.") And as in Huckleberry Finn, the book's humor redeems its mouth-puckering sourness. The last chapters -- in which the Cobb family converts to Mormonism, which Kirn portrays as a kind of exaggerated version of American kitsch and credulousness -- are especially Twainian. Justin goes on a church-sponsored trip to the "Garden of Eden" (in Missouri) and considers burning the place down.
Like Justin Cobb himself, Kirn's novel is jittery, unsettled, wired with hyperactive energy. And like all interesting adolescents, it's capable of melancholy seriousness and manic humor, often in the very same thought.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Dark and witty, novelist (She Needed Me) and book critic Kirn's narrative of demoralized 1980s suburbia chronicles the coming-of-age of Justin Cobb, a 14-year-old who develops a series of addictions after his dentist-cum-therapist breaks his thumb-sucking habit. This premise is fortified by Kirn's uncommonly thoughtful treatment of Justin's humorously dysfunctional family--his sports-obsessed father calls his family "you people"; his beloved, increasingly New Age mother is a nurse at a celebrity rehab clinic; his younger brother, Joel, quietly cultivates a fetish for expensive designer clothing. Only Justin seems to realize how close his family is to emotional collapse. Unable to bear the weight of saving them himself, he cleverly engineers their conversion to Mormonism. Thankfully, their new-found spiritualism does nothing to stifle Justin's iconoclastic opportunism, which keeps the story bouncing along to its conclusion. Kirn's bildungsroman contains all the genre's essential themes (sexual exploration, intellectual flowering, etc.) but his plotting subverts any cliched revelations. When Justin joins his high school speech team, his gift for persuasion, and a new addiction to decongestants, makes him cocky, but he is quickly deflated by his melancholy speech coach. Many other neat reversals of fortune, peppered with taut, edgy dialogue, fit beautifully into Kirn's satirical style. However carefully Justin documents the changes in other characters, his own character remains oddly consistent, so that, despite all the laughs, the novel ends with the hero still on the brink of real transformation. But he's such a sharp, endearing lad, with psychic depths as fascinating as his glossy cynicism that readers will be satisfied with young Justin just as he is. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Growing up is difficult, and adolescence especially so. Justin, firmly in the midst of puberty, is confused. When we meet him, at 14, he is still sucking his thumb. His wacky, hippie dentist offers to hypnotize him to rid him of this embarrassing habit; it works, but Justin realizes that he has lost his solace in a crazy world. Deprived of his thumb, Justin tries to find something that will help him make sense of the world and calm him down. He tries Ritalin, sex, the speech team, fly fishing, work, alcohol, marijuana, and even Mormonism, all to no avail. In addition, he has his family to cope with: Joel, his younger and more athletic brother, and his parents, who ask Justin to call them by their given names so they won't feel so old. Justin tries to bond with his family despite their eccentricities and manages to find some common ground. Funny and neurotic, this second novel from New York magazine reviewer Kirn is a good story about growing up and learning to cope. Recommended for public libraries.--Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
YA-In a voice reminiscent of that of Holden Caulfield, Justin Cobb recounts his efforts to kick his dependency-not on alcohol, not on drugs, but on his thumb. Dubbed "the King Kong of oral obsessives" by his hippie dentist, the 16-year-old is desperate to find a way to break this embarrassing habit he has retained since infancy. His father, a former football star, tries to help by providing a course of Suk-No-Mor, a nasty cayenne-pepper cream, and a healthy dose of fly-fishing. His mother, who works as a nurse helping the rich and famous sober up, seems more concerned with a fantasy romantic relationship with TV-star Don Johnson than with her son's problems. Hypnosis seems to work, but the problem surfaces in other forms. The thumb goes out, but beer, decongestants, nitrous oxide, cough syrup, Midol, and Ritalin go in. With hyperactive zeal, Justin also tries the school speech team, sex, honest work, and even Mormonism. In this funny but often bittersweet tale, the teen finally determines that growing up is hard to do and not an overnight process. He can only hope that people will accept him as he is: thumbsucking and all. YAs will surely identify with Justin, whose struggles may reflect some of their own.-Carol Clark, formerly at Fairfax County Public Schools, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
We've been hearing a lot about a crisis in masculinity lately. Now we can see it from a boy's point of view in Thumbsucker, a dark and clever new novel by New York Magazine book critic Walter Kirn...Kirn's writing is inspired, sharply funny, and unforgiving.
A funny and engagingly original portrayal of adolescence in eruption: an accomplished second novel from the author of My Hard Bargain (1990) and She Needed Me (1992) who has also made his mark as a prominent freelance reviewer. Kirn's likable protagonist and narrator is 16-year-old Justin Cobb of suburban Shandstrom Falls, Minnesota, dubbed "the King Kong of oral obsessive" by the family dentist, who only partially succeeds in breaking Justin of the embarrassing habit he's retained since infancy. Ritalin helps, but it's overmatched by the many confusions the Cobb family's lively behavior continually engenders. Younger brother Joel (an unfortunately sketchily drawn figure) is a conventional teenaged athletic prodigy. The boys' beautiful mother Audrey, who works as a part-time nurse helping the rich and famous dry out and sober up, fantasizes a romantic friendship with TV heartthrob Don Johnson. And father Mike is a wonderful character: former football star and inveterate jock-worshiper, he's a bizarre manic-depressive mixture of stoic, bully, chronic whiner, conscientious parent and provider. Kirn takes Justin through an episodic succession of generic rites of passagedrugs, rebellion against authority, borderline-sexual initiationbut the novel distances itself from the ever-increasing hundreds of Catcher in the Rye imitations through Kirn's respect for the individual distinctions, as well as the idiosyncrasies, of this utterly disarming nuclear family. Justin is, of all things, a gifted debater who stars on his school's "speech team" while loosely preparing himself "to become a TV issues-analyst and stir the nation with controversial insights." And theCobb family's embattled embrace of the Mormon faith occasions a neatly linked series of bittersweet comic scenes climaxed by Justin's matured determination, simply, to become the person he is: warts, thumbsucking, and all. One of the year's most charming books. Kirn has little to fear from fellow reviewers. most of them should love Thumbsucker.
Read an Excerpt
It was the one thing I'd always done. Even breathing did not go back to the womb. Being part of a circle of shoulder, arm, hand, mouth, connected me to myself. This circle is what they tried to break the summer I turned fourteen.The appetite was neither thirst nor hunger but seemed to include them both. It could come at any time: while I was waiting in winter darkness for the school bus, fretting about Marcel, the French exchange student who sat behind me in social studies class and liked to rap his knuckles on my skull. Or I'd be walking past the downstairs bathroom, humming and pressing my hands against my ears to block out the sound of Mike, my father, singing high and tunelessly about the suppliers to his sporting goods store: "Oh, Orvis, you sons of bitches, get off my back," or "Give me a break, Smith & Wesson, just one small break." Or maybe I was downtown at Wayne's Cafe, watching my ravenous little brother, Joel, spread so much butter on an English muffin that his teeth left disgusting clifflike marks.The effect when my thumb touched my lips was subtle and encompassing. Because I sometimes watched myself in a mirror, doubling my sense of self-communion, I knew how I looked at the moment of closure. Above my greedily flexing cheeks, my eyes would shine as though I'd just put drops in. My forehead would relax and lose its lines. From the rhythmic bullfrog swelling of my throat and the pulsing muscles along my jaw, it appeared I was actually taking nourishment. I believed I was.When Mike began his campaign against my habit, the idea of it didn't seem to anger him. With his chewing gum and cigars and Red Man chewing tobacco, it's possible he even sympathized; he was a person who liked his mouth full, too. What riled him was that I'd developed an overbite and he was getting the orthodontist's bills. One night, when he was grouching about them, I said, "I thought your insurance paid for everything." We were in the TV room watching Ronald Reagan, whom Mike had given money to and voted for. Mike still had a Reagan sticker on his Ford, nicked and shredded from my mother's attempts to scrape it off with a razor blade."You people must think insurance is free," Mike said. He spat brown tobacco juice into a beer can he was holding against his lower lip. "In point of fact, Justin, my entire store is paying for what you're doing to your teeth.""I didn't know that," I said. "I'm dumb sometimes."Mike gazed at Reagan's square, tanned face and sighed. "Insurance just spreads the costs, it doesn't erase them. Can't you people get that through your heads?"That was what Mike called our family: you people. It made me feel like an intruder in his life.Our dentist was a man named Perry Lyman. He worked in the northern suburbs of St. Paul and commuted from our little town of Shandstrom Falls. Before outsiders started moving there, in the early seventies, the town had been a sleepy trading center for hog and dairy farmers, but its large, inexpensive Victorian houses and proximity to the St. Croix River--a government-designated "wild river" that people said you could drink from, though I wouldn't--attracted a stream of outdoorsy young professionals. They brought with them new, exotic sports that hadn't yet spread across the Midwest: cross-country skiing, bike touring, kayak racing. Rallies and meets were held every month or so, announced by flyers posted at Mike's store. Mike competed in all these events. He held his own, but the first-place trophies always seemed to go to Perry Lyman.I could see why. Perry Lyman was steady, cool, and able to pace himself, while Mike's approach of clenched ferocity burned him out midrace. Perry Lyman seemed to take pleasure in sports, while Mike's interest in them was Spartan, almost survivalist, as though he were in training for the day when modern civilization would collapse and men would have to paddle and ski great distances, gathering food and supplies. Mike's experience playing college football (only a senior-year knee injury had kept him from going pro) had taught him, in the words of his old coach, that "winners treat every practice as a game." The saying decorated Mike's business cards and hung in a gold frame inside his store.Perry Lyman took a softer approach. He was a kind of hippie, a social dropout, though with short, mossy hair and normal clothes; he sometimes wore a bracelet of tiny seashells but always removed them before touching patients' mouths. He smoked pot--I saw a scorched hemostat on his desk one day while he was adjusting my retainer, and I knew what it was from the sheriff's antidrug booth at the county fair. He was a hippie in other ways, too. He preferred hypnosis to anesthetics and liked to prescribe simple exercises for the correction of minor malformations. The year before he gave me a retainer, he'd actually had me using my fingers to push my top teeth back. I pushed for an hour each night after supper and gave myself low-level headaches.Though Perry Lyman knew the real reason, he pretended to blame my overbite on an odd nocturnal tongue motion supposedly common in boys my age. In explaining these spasms he introduced me to the term "subconscious pressure" and the idea of involuntary behavior. I instantly recognized the all-purpose excuse I'd been seeking all my life."So if people can't help things they do," I said, "why punish them?" I was thinking of John Hinckley, who'd shot Reagan."It has nothing to do with changing the offender," Perry Lyman said. "It's merely society working out its rage.""I see.""There's a group subconscious, too. It's complicated.""It makes sense to me."The day of my retainer fitting, I sat in Perry Lyman's padded chair and gazed around at rainbow-colored posters reminding me that "A Thing of Beauty Is a Joy Forever" and "If You Love Something, Let It Go." While I struggled to breathe through a stuffy nose, Perry Lyman packed my mouth with gray mint-flavored putty, then had me bite down to make an impression. Two weeks later he gave me my "appliance," a pink plastic, crab-shaped object ringed by wires and ridged on top to match my wrinkled palate.