Book review: Author, Jesse Andrews, taps into local flavor and teenage pathos

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Greg Gaines is a 17-year-old senior at Pittsburgh's Benson High School. He lives in Point Breeze. He's an amateur filmmaker. And he has only one friend -- Earl Jackson.

Earl is from Homewood. He's short and angry, and he could teach a sailor (stereotype) a thing or two about cursing.

Greg and Earl are obsessed with the films of Werner Herzog. They often film DIY versions of his oeuvre (usually starring Greg, Earl and Greg's cat, Cat Stevens). They don't let anyone see their movies.

That's all over, though. Greg and Earl have retired from filmmaking after crafting what Greg calls "The Worst Film Ever Made."

What qualifies the film for such an ignominious distinction? According to Greg, "it killed someone. It caused an actual death."

Truth or hyperbole? In order to find out, you'll have to read "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" (Amulet Books, $16.95, 14 and up), Jesse Andrews' funny, perceptive and occasionally painful coming-of-age novel of friendship and loss.

Through first-person narrative Greg chronicles his disastrous senior year, starting with day one and his rules for surviving high school.

For example, Greg and Earl don't speak at school. Why? Because Greg has figured out the perfect way to negotiate the social chaos of Benson. As the much more confident Lord Byron once wrote, be "among them, but not of them."

The best way to survive high school, Greg reckons, is for all of the cliques to accept you. Regularly appearing on the periphery of each group will lead the members to think, "Greg! He's one of us." Or, at least, "Greg is a guy who I am not going to flick ketchup at."

Unfortunately this means having no real friends. Because aligning yourself with one social group would inevitably lead to becoming the enemy of at least one other clique.

His strategy has succeeded -- in so far as a plan to not have friends can succeed. But during senior year, Greg's perfect plan is blown to smithereens by his mom. She's found him a friend. Rachel Kushner, a girl Greg accidentally dated in the sixth grade.

Rachel has acute myelogenous leukemia, and Greg and Rachel's mothers think Greg could really cheer Rachel up. Greg, not surprisingly, doesn't agree.

"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is the first novel by Pittsburgh native and Schenley graduate Jesse Andrews. He tells the story of Greg's traumatic, sad and laugh-out-loud senior year with true ability, nuance and lots of dirty jokes.

Mr. Andrews' Pittsburgh is current and familiar. There are shout-outs to such East End hot spots as Oh Yeah! in Shadyside ("a ridiculously good ice cream and waffles place" where Greg and Earl explore the mix-ins after accidentally eating some pot brownies), as well as a definition of yinzers (someone who wears a Steelers jersey to a wedding), and other juicy bits for the locals.

But locale is ultimately unimportant. Plot-wise this is Any City, USA, and Benson has all of the usual social circles, conveniently organized by Greg into categories such as "Middle-Class African-American Junior Sub-Clique 4c."

With chapter titles such as "Pasty Teen Has Uneventful Day" and uproarious dialogue regularly presented in the style of a film script, the reader gets a real sense of Greg's humor as a coping mechanism and his deep love and understanding of filmic storytelling.

Greg immediately resents his mother for volunteering him to play Patch Adams to a girl he hardly knows. He also feels guilty about his reluctance to make the attempt.

In Greg's words, "What can you possibly say to a dying person? Who might not even know that you know that they're dying?"

It's a fair question. And Greg spends almost the entire novel with his foot in his mouth as a result. Mr. Andrews' often hilarious teen dialogue is utterly convincing, and his characters are compelling.

Greg's random sense of humor, terrible self-esteem and general lack of self-awareness all ring true. Same goes for Earl's intelligence (hidden beneath the anger and horrible home life) and Rachel's changing attitude toward her sickness.

Back at Benson, Greg and Earl make a tribute film for their friend (they don't know what else they can do for her). But this film gets seen -- a disaster of epic proportions that ends Greg's social experiment.

Senior year progresses, Rachel takes a turn for the worse, and Greg and Earl's friendship is on the rocks. As Rachel slips away she uses her time with Greg to suggest he pull himself together and look into film school.

Greg balks -- after all when your two friends' fates are decided for them by cancer and concrete social stratification, what right do you have to move on and succeed? Why should he be allowed to have a happy life?

Greg Gaines is an unreliable narrator, but not because he's especially disturbed or dishonest; he's simply a teenager who blames himself for problems too big to solve.

Like many YA authors, Mr. Andrews blends humor and pathos with true skill, but unlike contemporaries such as the mega-popular John Green, he steers clear of tricky resolutions and overt life lessons, favoring incremental understanding and growth.

At the end of "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" it doesn't feel like Greg has figured life out exactly. Rachel's death doesn't make him better, but knowing Rachel and Earl has. And that's something.

books

Corey Wittig is teen librarian at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh main branch in Oakland.


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