Book review: 'Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock' by Matthew Quick

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Matthew Quick's fourth novel, "Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock" (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, $18, ages 15 and up), ventures into the mind of the title character, a precocious, angst-ridden, confused young man. Leonard is determined to kill himself and his former best friend on his 18th birthday.

The book's title lends itself to two plausible, conflicting interpretations. Is it a direct address by someone who has wronged Leonard, apologizing to him? Or could it be a parting statement, authored by Leonard himself?

This ambiguity facilitates the will-he-or-won't-he? nature of the story and increases the suspense as Leonard sets out to realize his murder-suicide plan.

Although he is beyond seeking apologies by the start of the novel, Leonard is owed at least three. At home, his father, Ralph, and his mother, Linda, allowed their selfishness to get in the way of being adequate parents. At school, Asher Beal, the classmate whom Leonard intends to kill, has a mysterious history with Leonard that culminated in a breach of trust.

Ralph is, according to Leonard, a "has-been one-hit-wonder joke" of the 1990s grunge rock persuasion. After becoming addicted to alcohol, drugs and gambling, Ralph fled the country to avoid tax evasion charges when Leonard was 15.

Linda, whom Leonard rarely calls "Mom," spends most of her time in Manhattan. She tends to her fashion design career and boyfriend while Leonard remains in South New Jersey, alone.

Asher Beal is a stereotypical high school bully. Leonard is able to stand up to Asher by threatening to expose a secret the two share. However, Leonard is plagued by the secret himself.

The rejection and betrayal Leonard has experienced have driven him to a state of misanthropy and pessimism. He believes that adulthood can only yield more unhappiness.

Armed with a P38 World War II Nazi handgun (an inheritance from his grandfather), Leonard sets out to deliver parting gifts to the few people who matter to him.

Among the trusted few are Walt, an elderly Humphrey Bogart enthusiast and Leonard's next-door-neighbor. There is also Baback, an Iranian immigrant, who is Leonard's classmate and Lauren, an Evangelical Christian, home-schooled teenage girl. Lauren is Leonard's (seemingly unattainable) crush.

Most revered of all is Herr Silverman, a young, dedicated teacher and Leonard's mentor. Herr Silverman sees Leonard's potential and understands that Leonard struggles to fit in with his peers. In delivering the gifts, Leonard hopes that someone will realize that it is, in fact, his birthday.

In Leonard's ongoing internal monologue, he wonders:

"When do we stop needing the people around us to acknowledge the fact that we are aging and changing and getting closer to our deaths? No one tells you this. It's like everyone remembers your birthday every single year and then suddenly you can't remember the last time someone sang the birthday song to you, nor can you say when it stopped."

Leonard's self-pity may make him less appealing to readers. Still, his miserable disposition is understandable given that his cries for help have been overlooked by most of the adults in his life.

On the other hand, Leonard definitely manipulates those around him into believing that he does not need help, perpetuating his own neglect. Even when Herr Silverman gently confronts Leonard, noting that his actions are "clear signs" of suicidal intention, Leonard denies his teacher's suspicion in favor of completing his "mission."

Readers who do feel sympathetic to Leonard may nonetheless find it challenging to imagine him existing outside of fiction. He is simultaneously world-weary and naive, wise and irrational.

His first-person narrative is peppered with references to Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Manson, Hunter S. Thompson, Ernest Hemingway, Lady Gaga, Samson and Delilah, numerous Bogart films and Hamlet, among others.

It's not impossible to envision such a culturally aware teenager. However, it may be difficult to reconcile the breadth of Leonard's interests and his philosophical nature with his selfish plan, childlike tendencies and thoughts.

As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that Leonard is reluctant to share the true catalyst for his utter despair. The frustration he experiences at home and at school only exacerbates a deeper, unresolved anxiety that he does not know how to communicate.

In all likelihood, Leonard will never receive apologies from those who had wronged him in his childhood. Still, there is a glimpse of hope for him.

His narrative is interrupted by correspondence from his future: four letters written by people who bond with Leonard after a nuclear holocaust changes the world. Mr. Quick staggers these letters throughout the novel, shifting the pace of the story and compounding the uncertainty about Leonard's outcome.

Mr. Quick is no stranger to complex and challenging character creation. His first adult fiction novel, "The Silver Linings Playbook," was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film in 2012. He has written three novels for teens and has two forthcoming.

Despite Mr. Quick's willingness to experiment with an unconventional narrative and shed light on a dark teenage psyche, "Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock" offers only a superficial look into a teenager's world as he wrestles with depression and begins to face his past. Leonard's desperate quest for closure allows him to come to terms with his own notions of happiness and decide whether to seize the future or wallow in his struggles, but readers may still find themselves unsatisfied at the novel's end.


Molly Dickerson is a mentor at The Labs@ CLP, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's digital media learning lab.

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