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Who the Man

Who the Man

by Chris Lynch

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Earl doesn’t want to be a bully. It’s not his fault that his body is as big as a football player’s!Thirteen-year-old middle-schooler Earl has the body and facial scruff of a man—and this gets him into trouble. Everyone thinks Earl’s a tough guy, but he’s just trying to get by. Thinking he knows what’s right from


Earl doesn’t want to be a bully. It’s not his fault that his body is as big as a football player’s!Thirteen-year-old middle-schooler Earl has the body and facial scruff of a man—and this gets him into trouble. Everyone thinks Earl’s a tough guy, but he’s just trying to get by. Thinking he knows what’s right from wrong—and using his fists to prove his point—earns him a week’s suspension from school. Earl thinks he’ll have a relaxing week, but things soon slip out of his control when his home life starts to fall apart. He may be as big as a grown-up, but Earl will learn that being a man means more than how you look on the outside.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"Through a 13-year-old boy's first-person narration, Lynch lays bare the pivotal period in adolescence when the world changes from the black-and-white simplicity of childhood innocence to the gray area of adulthood," said PW in a starred review. Ages 10-up. (Jan.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
There are kids like Lynch's Earl in middle schools all across America—slow, big, their bodies growing faster than their vocabularies, trying in vain to puzzle their way through the world's inequities. People seek Earl out for fights, and often he obliges. But deep down inside, he wouldn't hurt a fly. He spends an inordinate amount of time afflicted by remorse and governed by a growing list of Shaltnots. The first-person narrative plays out against a range of surreal settings, from the corner store where Earl and funny little Bobby Norton go reliably each Saturday for their cream soda and juice box respectively, to an abandoned church that is practically beautiful in its decay. Then there are Earl's parents, their relationship plagued by growing dissonance; Louisa, whom Earl is starting to see with new eyes; and the young toughs she has taken to hanging with. They see Earl, big as he is, as the opportunity for a quick dodge around the law. All this is a full plate for a thirteen-year-old, and to be honest, one sometimes forgets that Earl is that young. "Politely invited to stay away" from school, his days seem to go from agonizing crawl to frantic fast-forward. In the end, an overwhelming inner sense of justice, clashing headlong with the realities that life dishes up, leads him with a jolt (or perhaps it's a "jolt-jolt") to the possibility of hope. The Shaltnots are not replaced, exactly, but a certain perspective begins to dawn. "Because four-three is about as even as you're ever going to get, in a life divided up in sevens." 2002, HarperCollins,
— Uma Krishnaswami
"Seeing and being seen. Why is it not that simple? Somebody sees me and sees a man. Somebody sees me and sees a boy. Somebody sees me not at all." One of Earl Pryor's biggest problems is how other people perceive him. To his parents, he is a beloved son who can do no wrong. To his classmates, he is a hulking giant, a freak, the "biggest thirteen year old you ever saw." Because of his size, Earl seems to always find himself being provoked into fighting. Earl usually wins these bouts, his fists fueled by frustration because of his lack of control-whether over his height, his parents' dysfunctional marriage, or the feelings he has for his sixteen-year-old former babysitter Louisa. Earl gets through his days by following his own strict code. "Rules. Keep your rules. Never, never let people in. People destroy." Nevertheless, everything changes when he is suspended for fighting, and the comforting order of school is removed from his schedule. Adrift at home, Earl makes several unwelcome discoveries about himself and his family that finally lead him to the knowledge that absolute principles of right and wrong simply do not exist. More accessible than the critically acclaimed Freewill (HarperCollins, 2001/VOYA August 2001), this novel is reminiscent of Lynch's now woefully out of print Blood Relations series about tough-boy Mick. Earl will be understood and cheered on by teen readers who share his aggravation at the lack of control in their own young lives. His story would be an excellent selection for book discussion groups. VOYA CODES: 4Q 3P M J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined asgrades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2002, HarperCollins,
— Jennifer Hubert <%ISBN%>0066239389
School Library Journal
Gr 5-8-At 13, Earl is bigger and physically more mature than the other kids in his school, and he doesn't hesitate to use violence to handle conflicts. His tough-talking father actually eggs him on and encourages him to take care of himself. The novel follows a week in the boy's life after he has been suspended from school for fighting. In a rhythmic first-person narration, Lynch gets inside the head of the type of student who exists in many schools-the misunderstood kid whose confusion and anger gets him pegged as a brute and a bully, yet hidden beneath are layers of sensitivity, vulnerability, and loneliness. Readers are privy to Earl's confused thoughts about his parents, religion, his one friend, and an older girl on whom he has a crush. During that same week, he shows the first inklings of a new understanding of the world, learning that most situations are not black and white, and right and wrong are not defined in terms of absolutes. Things come to a head when Earl spots his father with another woman. In a conclusion that seems somewhat hurried and jumps ahead in time, he is last seen adjusting to his parents' divorce and is beginning to understand himself better. While there isn't much story here, the novel successfully captures the nuances of Earl's character, and is superbly written.-Todd Morning, Schaumburg Township Public Library, IL Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The bittersweet story of Earl's week of school suspension, told from inside his mind, is heavy with pain and love. Earl is 13, big and physically mature enough to be mistaken for a man, but weighed down with emotional burdens: the hatred and hostility between his parents, for example, and his own alienation from children his age. His tendency to punch people gets him suspended from school; however, the overall feeling in Earl’s life is not anger but a profound emotional ache. Earlier in life, Earl might have felt freer and easier, before the coldness and silence between his parents (who are unswervingly committed to him but literally won’t speak to each other) and back when Louisa was his babysitter rather than a girl he loves and who insists she’s too old for him. It also seems that Earl’s physical growth is inextricably related to his alienation from his peers, but those specifics are never explored. The perspective keeps readers close to Earl’s point of view, sometimes cryptically; however, not a word is wasted, and an accessible narrative style leaves Earl’s story and deep emotions open to readers of varying levels. Most special are relationships with the three people who love Earl fiercely: Dad, who rubs bristly cheeks with him and smells like cigarettes in a way Earl loves; Moms, who cooks him hearty soups and tucks him into bed; and little Bobby Norton, another outcast peer, stubbornly committed to their friendship. Sad, tender, and finally hopeful. (Fiction. 10-14)

Product Details

Open Road Media Teen & Tween
Publication date:
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File size:
2 MB
Age Range:
10 - 14 Years

Read an Excerpt

Who the Man

By Chris Lynch


Copyright © 2002 Chris Lynch
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-0457-1


Big Man

Right and wrong is a simple deal, and everybody knows it. As long as you have all the facts, right and wrong make themselves very clear to you. If you really want to know.

Don't ever be a rat. You don't fink. It's not right. No matter what, you don't fink, and you don't complain. It's just not what you do. It's just not right.

And don't lie. Don't lie, don't fink, don't complain.

I try not to complain. But what can you do sometimes? Times like these times. Times like these days—and these days, they are all like these days. Deep dark cold night-all-day winter days that won't give you a break, ever. On these days, I find myself at school, or on my way to school, before I even realize that I am awake, that I have gotten up and eaten and dressed and all prior to finding myself where I am. It's as if I have woken up right on the pavement in mid-stride or in my seat waiting for class to begin, or like I never even slept at all but am still walking through yesterday and the day before because they are really all just one long dark restless winter day that won't give you a break.

Days like that, like these, they just make you feel angry the whole time. Like somebody somewhere is pulling something on you, but you can't quite put your finger on who. And you really want to put a finger on him.

By the time I become aware of things today, I am delivering milk. I am the milkman today. We have a milk program here, and we all get the chance to deliver the milk on a special trolley all around school when it's our turn. The milk company comes by and drops the stuff off at the back door where it sits and freezes in the tiny little cartons that are stacked up inside the plastic-cube carrier crates that are then stacked up on top of each other in a tower as tall as me. It's a lot of milk and a fair-size school, so two kids from our class get the assignment each week, one taking the rooms on the east side of the corridor and the other the west until everybody has milk. It's a chunk out of class time, a bite out of the boring day, so most people love to do it.

I don't. I don't feel like seeing any people today. Now I get to see everybody. At least everybody on the east side of the corridor.

"Well well well well," says Mrs. Sanderson, the first-grade teacher, as I wheel my stupid squeaky cart into her classroom. I always get the stupid squeaky-wheel cart when it's my turn, and I don't know how that is, why that is. Somebody has to be rigging things, and I'm going to find out. They could at least oil the wheels, but they don't. And Derek, who's the other Milk Dud with me, even the law of averages would say that he'd get the squeaky wheels sometimes. But never. And he's always pulling stuff like this. He's never left with the blunt scissors that make your artwork look like you've been biting it off instead of cutting it. He never gets to the pencil sharpener when it's so full of shavings it's puking up curly bits all over the place. These things don't happen to just anybody, and they don't happen by accident. I am going to find out about this. No slipping into or out of any classrooms unnoticed when you have this stupid squeaky cart, and that stinks. I just want to be quiet and unnoticed and go about my—

"Class!" Mrs. Sanderson says with so much enthusiasm you would think the Christmas break was just ahead instead of lying dead in the snow behind us. "Class, do you see this big strapping man right here?"

Of course they see me, Mrs. Sanderson. You kind of made it impossible not to see me even if it was possible not to see me, which it's probably not, even if they didn't want to see me, which they probably didn't, and even if I didn't want to be seen, which I definitely did not.

But I like her anyway. I have liked her all the time.

"This fine strapping tower of a man," she says, frogmarching me away from my stupid squeaky cart to the front of her class, "was once right in here, where you children are now sitting. Can you believe it?"

Their innocent little first-grade faces say they cannot believe it. I must look like a tree to them. They must have thought that milk came from trees.

Mrs. Sanderson has an arm around me. That is, she has a hand on my shoulder as she stretches to try and drape an arm over me. She's really little. And really proud. As if she is somehow responsible for the size of me. As if the size of me is something to be proud of, anyway.

"He used to fit in one of those desks like you children are sitting in right now."

The kids all wriggle now, and murmur, stretching around them to look at their own legs under those desks, to try and see their own little backsides on those connected seats. Like there is some kind of answer there, to the physical wonder of me.

"So," Mrs. Sanderson says, giving my shoulder a last extra pat, "make sure, all of you, that you drink your milk up, to grow straight and strong just like big Earl Pryor."

I could break up that stupid squeaky cart, right now, into five million pieces. Break it right over that rat Derek's head.

Like it or not—and the answer is not—I have a job to do, and when I have a job to do, it gets done. But it gets no better.

It almost scares me, the quiet slashed apart by my squeaky wheels in the big open empty corridor of the school. The ceiling is high, the floor is checkerboard black and white, and the silences are silent and the noises exaggerated. I want to be alone, and I can't. I want to be unknown, and I can't. Every step I take, with its accompanying trailing sound track, makes my heart beat a beat faster, makes my hands mad so that they squeeze the handle of the trolley just that much harder, so my own effort is making my fingers redder than even the frozen milk did. My stomach feels so hard and tense you could bounce a cannon-ball off it.

Suddenly I am not alone in the corridor. Out of one of the classrooms on the opposite side of the corridor comes my fellow milkman, Derek. Gliding along smoothly, silently, efficiently, apparently enjoying his job and dragging it out with little turtle steps the way most kids do. He barely takes any notice of me as he heads along, along out of one class and toward the next, squiggling along the wall like a fat-bottomed rat.

I just stand there for a moment and watch him. I stare, silent and motionless, as he goes about his business the way both of us are supposed to. But I am hypnotized.

Eventually he feels it, the way you feel a person staring. The side of his head must have started melting, from the intensity of my stare.

"What?" he asks, exasperated. He has stopped moving, and we now stand there looking at each other from across the corridor.

I say nothing at first, and this makes him more irritated.

"What, mental case. What are you doing?"

I take a breath. The breath does nothing.

So I drive.

I march my cart across that corridor, picking up steam with every stride, the remaining milk cartons rolling around all the new extra space, the wheels squealing madly now, like singing almost, like screaming.

I am at full speed, and full madness, when I reach my destination, reach the west, reach Derek and his wonderful, perfect, silent trolley.

I smash right into him.

He looks at me. Stunned. Speechless.

I back up and smash him again, harder, and this time I hit hard enough to pin Derek to the wall of lockers behind him. It makes an awful racket, but lockers always make a bigger noise than they should. It was not nearly as bad as it sounded.

"This trolley squeaks," I say to him.

He stares blankly at me.

The janitor, Mr. Little, comes up from the basement. "What's going on here?" he says.

"Traffic accident," I say.

"Earl," he says in a very stern tone, though he is not a very stern man.

I am about to get in trouble. Derek is not. It is assumed I am the aggressor.

"Derek?" Mr. Little asks.

I look to Derek. We are not friends, Derek and me. We have had our problems. And we will have more. Probably right now, once he opens his mouth.

But here is something. As Derek is there, in front of me, about to rat me out and get me back and win the day, I'm not hating him. I've lost it somewhere, just like that. I don't know where it went to. I don't care.

I take a carton of milk off my cart—which you are not supposed to do. I tear it open and throw it down my gullet, ice needles and all. I wipe my mouth with my hand and wait for it to come.

"We were just switching carts, Mr. Little," Derek says.

Mr. Little's face goes all wide and surprised. Mine wants to look the same but I fight it down. I'm experienced at that.

"Why were you trading carts?"

"One of them doesn't roll so good," Derek says, "so we swap halfway."

Mr. Little is kind of left with nowhere to go. "Oh," he says. "Oh, then. Fine, go on, get the job finished. But don't make any more racket."

He leaves, and we quietly take up our trolleys, our new trolleys. I watch as Derek makes his way to the next classroom on his side. He squeaks now. The wheels wobble and don't want to go quite straight. He pushes on, noisily. I start pulling away, dragging the cart behind me now instead of pushing. It is nearly effortless. It glides, like a toboggan over two feet of new powdery snow.

It occurs to me I might, I suppose, maybe might have been wrong. About Derek sticking me with the bad cart. I think, for a second, about saying something. I watch him.

But no, he probably did something else rotten already I don't even know about. And he'll probably do more later.

"Hey," he calls before entering another classroom. I turn. "You owe me a milk. For the one you stole off the cart here."

I don't steal. I was going to pay for it. I stare at him long and hard.

I take a carton off my trolley and I throw it, overhand, across the corridor at him. He ducks, and it bounces off the locker behind him. He picks it up, still frozen, unbroken, dented.

"There," I say, "we're even."

I don't know why I should be bothering to think about Derek as I push my way into the next stop on my little odyssey. Derek sure isn't thinking about me. But I am doing exactly that, for no good reason, thinking about saying things and not saying things and doing things and not doing things to Derek, and all the other Dereks, as I slouch my way into Mr. Peppitone's class.

And I freeze there in the doorway.

I cannot believe I am back here.

Mr. Peppitone's class, sixth grade. This is the place. His place. This is where I got big. This is where it happened to me, the awful thing that happened, the strange freakish thing that happened, the growth splurt that changed me and changed everything. I practically remember the day here, when I outgrew everything.

I am still here, still frozen, still standing in Mr. Peppitone's doorway, being stared at by all the sixth-graders, and by Mr. Peppitone.

The only male teacher in the school. The rooster in the henhouse, big Mr. Peppitone. He stares at me, like he always stares at me. Eyes just like a shark.

He's looking at me, cold fishy eyes, and I'm feeling it, feeling weak. Feeling like I can't go any further. Feeling, at the moment, like I'm too wrong, too little and too big at the same time. Enough.

I reverse, right back out of the classroom.

Teacher wants to know where my trolley is. "Outside Mr. Peppitone's class, Mrs.," I say.

"Why is it there? And why are you here?"

I am sitting in my seat, as if things were just normal.

"I got dizzy, Mrs."

"Dizzy? Earl, are you sick?"

"I don't know, Mrs. I just ... I didn't feel too good. Didn't feel right. Felt like I needed to sit down."

There are low-level giggles around the room. I turn, sweeping a look over the whole bunch of them. There is no more giggling.

Teacher sends another kid to finish my milkman-ning. I check the big whiteface clock over her head. Nine twenty. Nine plus twenty. The school day is only twenty minutes old. I feel like I have traveled everywhere, the whole school building, my whole school life, backward and forward and inside out, and just wound up where I started, only a lot more tired.

And only twenty puny minutes ahead of the game.

I can't believe how much more of today is still there.

"Do you want to go to the nurse?" Teacher asks.

Don't complain. "No, Mrs."

"Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yes, Mrs."

I do fine in school. I don't love it or anything, but schoolwork doesn't bother me, and so I get along fine. You aren't allowed to talk to anybody when you're doing your work, and nobody is allowed to talk to you. That, I think, is the formula for getting along.

Except today, by lunchtime, I couldn't tell you what I have learned. I've been in there, in my seat, in the class. I've been a body, and I've been no trouble to anybody as far as I recall, but I don't really know what my mind's been doing, because I have retained nothing. This isn't good. It's a school, after all, and if I'm not here for learning, then I'm wasting everybody's time. That's not right. I am aware of it, and determined, if possible, to turn it around in the afternoon. I can do better, I can snap out of it.

I have, in my brown lunch bag, one of my favorite lunches. I sit on the ground outside and peel it open with some excitement, because I can sense it. You are supposed to eat your lunch inside and only come out when you are finished, but the rule pretty much is, if you're not causing anybody any trouble, you can sort of alter the rules in small meaningless ways. If, like I say, you're not doing any harm. At least that's the rule for me. I never see anybody else eating sitting on the asphalt.

Everybody else is running around the schoolyard like a bunch of nutters. Like they have been released from prison for the first time in ten years, even though they are like this every day. It looks like madness all around me while I'm here eating on the ground, but it doesn't feel like it. The wall of sound becomes like no sound at all, and I'm so used to it I'm not sure I could eat my lunch any other way at this point.

It's tuna today, but tuna the way it is meant to be. Because it's been sitting there inside the sandwich for hours, and the sandwich has been snugly wrapped in cellophane, and the cellophane is causing the contents to sweat just a bit, which makes it all come out more flavorful. Light rye bread, just a little bit of mayonnaise mixed with sweet mustard. And chunk light tuna, of course. Chunk light tuna is way better than solid white tuna because it has tons more flavor. They are just snowing everybody anyway, calling it light or chunk, because it is dark, and it is practically shredded, once you get to mixing it. They call it that, I think, because the whiter tuna is supposed to be the better stuff, the fancy stuff, even though it tastes a lot more like nothing, and the big white pieces are so dry they could choke you, and if that's what you go for, then why not just eat turkey instead?

My moms does that sandwich, usually twice a week. I like the regularness of that. I like the regularness of things, generally speaking. I have a bag of Fritos corn chips. They are for tucking into my tuna sandwich to give it that crunch. Moms would already have the Fritos in there, of course, but that would murder the crunch, and we can't have that. And there's a tangerine. That's all Moms.

There's something else, too. Funny, though, you can tell when my lunch has been tampered with. When Moms does my lunch she uses those brown bags that are meant strictly for lunch bags and come in tight packs of like twenty, so that when you open them up they're like razor-sharp at the edges. Factory-fresh, they are, when she has packed them and then done her neat little one-two-three fold-down thing from the top. But when somebody else has gotten at the bag, you can tell. There's a Kit Kat in there. And there's a Chunky. And a dollar.

That's my dad. He finds my lunch sitting unguarded on top of the washing machine, and he'll open it up and put something in, anything he's got, like loose change or a bag of peanuts, a half-gone pack of gum, one of those travel-packs of Kleenex. Just so that he gets in there. Just so he's had a hand in, my lunch bag, and round about lunchtime I'm knowing it, knowing about him, knowing he's still there. Then he crumples down the top of the bag all messy-style.

And round about lunchtime, I'm thinking about my dad, and my moms. And there you go. The ground is freezing my backside. But I'm not bothered.

"Hey, there you are," Bobby Norton says. Bobby is my friend at school. Close as I come, anyway. He's a year behind me in class even though he's a year ahead of me in age, even though he's about four years behind in size and looks and the way he acts a lot of the time.

"Here I always are, Bob," I say. "You know that. How come every day you come here and act surprised to see me?"

He stands there in front of me for a few seconds, making a face that I think is supposed to be a scowl. I take the last bites of my sandwich, after jamming in a few extra Fritos. There are some left in the bag.

I offer the last of the corn chips up to Bobby, though just barely up, since I am almost as tall sitting as he is standing.

He takes them, starts munching, resumes talking.

"You went mental and couldn't finish the milk run?"

I nearly choke on a very small wedge of tangerine.

"Where," I say in what sounds like a calm voice, "did you hear that?"

He is rooting around in the bottom of the Fritos bag like a raccoon. "I don't know. You know. Around."


"And you stole a milk?"

No more questions.


Excerpted from Who the Man by Chris Lynch. Copyright © 2002 Chris Lynch. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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.

Meet the Author

Chris Lynch (b. 1962), a Boston native, is an award-winning author of several acclaimed young adult novels, including Freewill (2001), which won the Michael L. Printz Honor, and National Book Award finalist Inexcusable (2005). Lynch holds an MA from the writing program at Emerson College, and teaches in the creative writing MFA program at Lesley University. He mentors aspiring writers and continues to work on new literary projects while splitting time between Boston and Scotland.   
Chris Lynch (b. 1962), a Boston native, is an award-winning author of several acclaimed young adult novels, including Freewill (2001), which won the Michael L. Printz Honor, and National Book Award finalist Inexcusable (2005). Lynch holds an MA from the writing program at Emerson College, and teaches in the creative writing MFA program at Lesley University. He mentors aspiring writers and continues to work on new literary projects while splitting time between Boston and Scotland.

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