Sunday, 29 June 2014

Winger, by Andrew Smith

Ryan Dean West doesn’t have the greatest self-confidence. But despite being a junior at just fourteen years old, on the scrawny side, and with, in his opinion, the highest degree of “loserosity” imaginable, he is determined that this year is going to be the year he gets his s**t together: mostly by surviving rooming with Pine Mountain Academy’s biggest bully, Chas Becker, and winning the girl of his dreams, best friend Annie Altman.

But Ryan Dean – or Winger, the nickname earned by his position on the school’s rugby team – has a talent for getting into trouble, even when he doesn’t mean to. As term progresses he is seduced by the smoking hot Megan Renshaw (girlfriend of, incidentally, the room-mate he’s quietly terrified of), becomes the multiple receiver of curse-spells from the distinctly un-hot Mrs. Singer, and is quickly hemorrhaging friends. Can he find a way to get out of this mess?

Winger is a small piece of genius. It is funny and heart-breaking and truthful.

Admittedly, Ryan Dean’s “year of change” doesn’t have the most auspicious start – upside down in toilet – but what, though, is the worst that he thinks can happen? Beaten to death by Chas for (a) making out with Megan and (b) being a general loser? Losing Annie? Suffering a catastrophic penis injury? Ryan Dean might think he’s a terrible loser, but I rather suspect that every teenage boy probably feels the way that he does about himself and about the world. If only I’d known when I was teenager what (I believe) I know now about the mind of a teenage boy…

Winger, though, starts off as one kind of story but gradually becomes something else altogether – like real life, there are twists and turns and corners you can’t see around; events lurking out of sight that no matter how good and brave and full of love Ryan Dean is, he will be powerless to change.

Earlier in the year, Andrew Smith wrote an article about our tendency to put people (and books) into boxes, to create labels about what a person should or shouldn’t be, or make assumptions about what a particular label means. Right from the beginning of Winger, it is clear that Ryan Dean understands the power of words and labels. Despite his rather unfortunate and hypocritical habit of putting girls into certain boxes, he’s none-the-less well aware that that one word can make you feel different, that one word can make people view you in a wholly different way. “Adorable” is the word that Ryan Dean has a complicated relationship with. For his friend Joey, it’s another word: gay. Before the end of his story, it will be brought home to Ryan Dean in the worst way imaginable how easily words can turn your life upside down.

This book is so slickly told, so tightly plotted, the scenarios so well laid out, you see things happening just that micro-second before they do – just enough of a head start to create that plunge of the stomach, flutter of the heart and a reverberating “oh, no…” to echo through your head. There are hints of the quirky style and sense of humour so evident in Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle, but tamed down a little, and the text is interwoven with Venn diagrams, pie charts, block charts, cartoons, imaginary conversations and letters that add a certain je ne sais quoi to Ryan Dean’s thoughts and emotions. This is The Great American Novel, the YA generation. Looking for Alaska meets The Art of Fielding, with the Andrew Smith magic thrown in.

Can Ryan Dean tame his inner Wild Boy and, against all the odds, win the girl?

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