Thursday, January 24, 2008

Slam by Nick Hornby

Most YA novels that I've read have idealized protagonists -- even if the kids are flawed, they're still generally smarter, more resourceful and articulate than real kids would be in that same situation. Hornby, on the other hand, depicts an absolutely realistic teen boy in Sam, the narrator of Slam.

Sam isn't exactly dumb, but he's not particularly motivated. School isn't the focus of this book, but, from what we can tell, he does OK in his classes without trying much at all. He's also an emotionally authentic teen boy, unconnected with his emotions most of the time and unused to articulating his feelings. He's our first-person narrator, so we get a lot of his voice, but he's still a bit opaque -- we know as much about him as he does, but he doesn't know himself all that well.

(Of course, he's sixteen, so that's very appropriate -- and more convincing than some of the hyper-verbal feelings-obsessed kids in other YA books.)

It's a good thing that Hornby is an energetic writer, used to moving pages forward through voice and creating vivid characters, since someone like Sam could easily turn into a dull lump in the hands of a more slow-moving writer. Hornby doesn't have a whole lot of plot in Slam -- we find out, almost on page 1, that Sam is telling this story from a vantage point two years later, and that something major and life-changing happened for him, but the story is just that: how one thing changed this kid's life forever.

Sam meets a girl, Alicia, at a party and is interested in her. They start dating and become (to quote Juno) "sexually active," and then the major, life-changing thing happens.

Would stating baldly what that thing is constitute a spoiler? Because I have to expect that anyone more focused and attentive than Sam himself would have figured it out by now.

And Slam then deals with the repercussions of that "thing," on Sam, on Alicia, and on their respective parents. (There's room for an interesting compare-and-contrast with the aforementioned Oscar-nominated movie, which I just saw over the weekend, but I'm not sure I want to give away that much of Slam to get into it.)

I want to discuss the end of Slam -- which I found plausible, and thought Hornby meant it to be a corrective to more optimistic or ideologically committed stories, but still didn't like the way it assumed this is the way such a relationship would necessarily be for people like Sam and Alicia -- but I will refrain.

Oh, and I forgot to mention two interesting aspects of Slam:

First, that Sam has a poster of Tony Hawk on his wall, which he talks to. (And which "talks back" to him, in that Sam has memorized Hawk's book Hawk: Operation Skateboarder and spouts back appropriate quotes from it to himself.)

And, secondly, that Slam has what might be a slight speculative element: more than once, Sam goes to sleep in his own time and wakes up a year or two forward in the future, to live a day of his future life before coming back to his original time.

The latter adds an uncomfortable element of inevitability. Again, Slam has a certain opinion about relationships -- a very modern, urbane, sophisticated one -- which I think is valid but not helpful, in the sense that believing in something negative about your own life can help to make it happen.

I'm running around in circles trying not to talk about Slam's ending, so I think I'd better quit while I'm behind. Slam is an interesting YA novel, and a decent, non-preachy example of the problem novel. But Sam and Alicia seem to end up where they do more because of the author's declaration than by their own actions, and that's a problem.

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