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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.
|Part I||Mouth to Mouth||1|
|Part III||Kingdom Come||203|
Posted December 11, 2007
Posted June 23, 2003
Keanu Reeves movie to be filmed But the bustling burb of Portland may very soon see the kung-fu fighting, Agent Smith busting Keanu Reeves AndMatthew McConaughey -- the star of the summer a hypnotizing orthodontist in the movie ¿Thumbsucker.¿Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 10, 2003
Thumbsucker by Walter Kirn is a journey about a young man Justin trying to find his path in life. It is comparable to a rollercoster ride...just when you think he is reaching his goal he drops back down again. Justins constant foe is his thumbsucking habit. However, when he leaves his habit behind through hypnosis, he finds out how big a void that it filled. This sprials him into a whirlwind of trying to find something else to make him feel whole again. Justin becomes sort of a 'lost soul' and turns to anyone and anything from drugs to religion to feel like a complete person. I feel that young adult readers would enjoy Justin's dark sense of humor. His family is also memorable for some laughs. The relationship that Justin shares with his father is truly a unique situation. It is written in a manner that allows for the reader to see Justin's thought processes and growth, so it may prove valuable to a reader who is dealing with an addiction of sorts. Thumbsucker is quite different from any other young adult literature. Although I found it to be quite disturbing at times, the characters and humor allowed me to continue on and see Justin's painful, humorous, somewhat neurotic journey as he struggles to adulthood.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 7, 2000
Posted December 30, 1999
I read this book in three days. it really relates to my highschool life style. this book got me back to reading. now i read 100 pages a day. it made me laugh. I reconmend this book for anyone in the reading rut.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.