Thumbsuckerby Walter Kirn
This eighties-centric, Ritalin-fueled, pitch-perfect comic novel by a writer to watch brings energy and originality to the classic Midwestern coming-of-age story.Meet Justin Cobb, "the King Kong of oral obsessives" (as his dentist dubs him) and the most appealingly bright and screwed-up fictional adolescent since Holden Caulfield donned his hunter's cap.… See more details below
This eighties-centric, Ritalin-fueled, pitch-perfect comic novel by a writer to watch brings energy and originality to the classic Midwestern coming-of-age story.Meet Justin Cobb, "the King Kong of oral obsessives" (as his dentist dubs him) and the most appealingly bright and screwed-up fictional adolescent since Holden Caulfield donned his hunter's cap. For years, no remedynot orthodontia, not the escalating threats of his father, Mike, a washed-out linebacker turned sporting goods entrepreneur, not the noxious cayenne pepper-based Suk-No-Morcan cure Justin's thumbsucking habit.Then a course of hypnosis seemingly does the trick, but true to the conservation of neurotic energy, the problem doesn't so much disappear as relocate. Sex, substance abuse, speech team, fly-fishing, honest work, even MormonismJustin throws himself into each pursuit with a hyperactive energy that even his daily Ritalin dose does little to blunt.Each time, however, he discovers that there is no escaping the unruly imperatives of his self and the confines of his deeply eccentric family. The only "cure" for the adolescent condition is time and distance.Always funny, sometimes hilariously so, occasionally poignant, and even disturbing, deeply wise on the vexed subject of fathers and sons, Walter Kirn's Thumbsucker is an utterly fresh and all-American take on the painful process of growing up.
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.
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 Rivera government-designated "wild river" that people said you could drink from, though I wouldn'tattracted 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 potI 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.
Meet the Author
Walter Kirn is the regular book reviewer for New York magazine and a contributing editor to Time. He is the author of two previous works of fiction, My Hard Bargain and She Needed Me. A graduate of Princeton University and the University of Oxford, he lives in Livingston, Montana. Portions of Thumbsucker have appeared in Esquire, GQ, and The New Yorker.
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