I don’t read a lot of Young Adult fiction, but it’s not hard to see why 55% of the people in the U.S. who buy YA books are over 18 years of age: today’s YA authors have capitalized on a growing thirst in our society for heroes and quests. Everyone wants to experience, at least once, what it feels like to be important and powerful in this huge, homogeneous world. At least, that’s part of the appeal, especially for the adults who are trapped in the mundane. You don’t have to be a fan of fantasy or dystopian fiction to enjoy great YA writing, though. Rats Saw God, by Rob Thomas, is YA fiction at its most impactful. There is no magic. There are no vampires. This book deals directly with the real life stuff of growing up: love, sex, drugs, parents, and school. And when I say ‘directly’, I mean it. So don’t offer it to your middle-schooler unless you’ve read it first.
Thomas’s premise is this: Steve York, a National Merit Finalist and very smart guy, is caught (again) coming to school stoned. An astute guidance counselor makes a deal with him: if Steve will write him a 100 page paper – on any subject – by the end of the school year, he can avoid remedial summer school and graduate with his class. Steve takes up the challenge reluctantly, but it doesn’t take him long to realize that he does have a story to tell. The book quickly becomes an interplay between the present narrative and the ‘story within the story’ of how Steve started down the road of drugs and alcohol. It is the act of writing the story that allows Steve to come to terms with the events that changed his life and find some measure of healing.
Thomas does a great job of writing in the voice of a seventeen year old boy without dumbing down the novel. His protagonist is sharp, witty, and honest. (Reading a sex scene written in the voice of a teenager was a refreshing change from the slick, racy writing an adult might try for.) Rats Saw God, published in 1996, is a bit dated, but I found that to be charming. Steve York’s generation, like mine, was sent reeling by the death of Kurt Cobain, spent a lot of time figuring out how to get tickets to Pearl Jam’s next concert, and generally made a mess out of dating and sex. This isn’t the meatiest book in the world, but it is a true one. It’s worth reading just for its great structure, its honesty, and its nerve, but be prepared for a healthy blast of nostalgia. You may not remember much from the year 1994, but if you read Rats Saw God, by Rob Thomas, I’m betting it all comes back to you pretty quickly.