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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

'Reality Boy' by A.S. King

From the BLURB:

Gerald Faust knows exactly when he started feeling angry: the day his mother invited a reality television crew into his five-year-old life. Twelve years later, he’s still haunted by his rage-filled youth—which the entire world got to watch from every imaginable angle—and his anger issues have resulted in violent outbursts, zero friends, and clueless adults dumping him in the special education room at school.

Nothing is ever going to change. No one cares that he’s tried to learn to control himself, and the girl he likes has no idea who he really is. Everyone’s just waiting for him to snap…and he’s starting to feel dangerously close to doing just that.

It’s getting harder and harder to write reviews of A.S. King’s books that are more than three-words long; ‘Just read it.’ ‘You’ll love it.’ ‘I loved it.’ Especially when she consistently writes provocative and disarming literature like ‘Reality Boy’. 

This is a book about Gerald Faust, whose family appeared on the television series ‘Network Nanny’ when he was five-years-old upon letter-request of his mother. Their segment was a ratings-hit; camera crews captured Gerald punching walls and his older sister. They glimpsed his mother’s favouritism of eldest daughter, Tasha, and disregard for her late-in-life children Lisi and Gerald. And the cherry on top of the ratings bonanza came when Gerald started to act out by taking dumps all over the house: on the dining room table and inside his mother’s favourite shoes, on Tasha’s bed and on the top step of the staircase. Gerald became known as ‘The Crapper’. 

What the cameras didn’t capture was the truth about the bony-beautiful actress hired to play ‘The Nanny’, the numerous re-takes of scenes depicting a ‘happy’ and ‘fixed’ family for the episode to conclude with and the real reason Gerald acted out with violence and Lisi hid away in her room; Tasha. Tasha, their oldest sister, who had been tormenting them for years. Tasha, their mother’s first and favourite. Tasha, who their father can merely roll his eyes at. Tasha, who hurts them when nobody is looking. 

Now aged seventeen, Gerald is still known in certain circles (and thanks to YouTube) as ‘The Crapper’. Lisi graduated from high school and got into college … in Scotland, far away from their gated community and psychopath sister. Tasha, meanwhile, dropped out of college and is currently living in the basement of their McMansion where she has deliberately loud, floorboard-shaking sex with her dropkick boyfriend. Gerald has an anger-management coach (assigned to him after an incident involving eating the face of a classmate … it’s a long story). He’s in SPED (special education) class at school and has made a family of his fellow misfits. He works at the PEC centre food stand, serving hockey fans and music-lovers and pining for fellow loner girl on register #1. 

“I’m not famous. I’m infamous,” I say. “There’s a big difference.” 

‘Reality Boy’ drifts between flashbacked filming snapshots of the ‘Network Nanny’ episode that failed to fix the Faust family but had damning repercussions on Gerald. Gerald is remembering those days in the weeks before his 17th birthday – when he starts truly pining for register #1 girl (despite his anger management coach warning him off dating) and as tensions with Tasha start to reach a boiling point. Not helping matters is the fact that his beloved sister, Lisi, left for Scotland three months ago and hasn’t been in touch since. And Gerald keeps casting his mind back to long-buried memories of what Tasha did to him and Lisi when they were too young to fight back…

I don’t think I’m too dangerous to date anymore. I mean, I know Roger thinks girls are infuriating and that I shouldn’t be opening myself up to that shit, but she’s cute. She’s funny. We’re both weird. She’s weird because she writes in that little book. I’m weird because I used to crap on stuff. And because I wear war paint to school. And because I ate part of some kid’s face once when I was thirteen.

I read A.S. King’s ‘Reality Boy’ shortly after stumbling across a BBC article about violent sibling bullying titled; ‘I wished I hadn’t been born.’ At the time I thought that was a harrowing read – but I had no idea the depths of this violence and its repercussions until I delved into Gerald’s world in ‘Reality Boy’. 

Gerlad is himself a violent young man – there are incidents from his past, and he has an anger-management coach. He’s aware of his “triggers” and he sometimes fantasizes about succumbing to his impulses. He’s tightly-wound and wounded, a little bit frightening for his intensity and the heartbreaking history that made him. But he’s one of the best male protagonists I’ve read in a long, long time and I’m not the least bit surprised that he’s the imagining of A.S. King – one of the best young adult writers around today and an absolute humanist when it comes to portraying grey-hued, ‘broken’ characters. 

At a time when news of king-hitting, wild and aggressive young men dominate the newsfeed – A.S. King presents Gerald who, at first glance, is just like any number of other angry young men. And, indeed, I’m sure a slew of viewers who tuned into ‘Network Nanny’ thought they had him all figured out as a no-hoper, juvenile delinquent when they watched the Faust family episode. But that’s not the real Gerald. The truth is far more complex and unconventional than could be translated to primetime television – Gerald is in fact a young man who no one has ever listened to. But when we meet him he’s just starting to realise that he has demands; he wants to be heard, he wants to be treated a certain way and he has every right to demand such things.

This was a central discussion of the book – demand. It got me thinking at what age children start to realise that they can have expectations for themselves and others? They can certainly demand a better life, and to be treated with care and deserve love. What happens to children who aren’t raised knowing that they should expect certain kindnesses and protection? What happens to those kids? 

Maybe most other people are messed up, too. It just wasn’t aired on TV or, you know, aired on Tom What’s-His-Name’s face.

I love A.S. King. In one book she subtly and deftly raises questions around fame-hunger in society, quick-fix psychology, bullying, societal misperceptions and family dysfunction all in a brutal and compelling coming-of-age book that’s unlike anything being tackled in the YA readership today. She’s in a league all of her own and whenever somebody says; “YA isn’t for me” I just wish I could hand them an A.S. King novel and then walk away. Because, damn!, what A.S. King writes can hardly be relegated only to the YA readership – she writes heartbreakingly flawed and complex human characters for everyone.


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