Thursday, December 8, 2011

Full Service by Will Weaver

Full Service is just the type of coming-of-age story that I didn’t think was still being published. The narrator, a sixteen-year old named Paul Sutton, encounters various personalities at a summer job working at a Shell service station. This character is not some sort of brilliant teenage genius or a snarky know-it-all. He is real. Which makes this novel relevant and modern despite it being set in a moment of time virtually extinct. It's the type of storytelling I like. The plot is subtle and simple. The complexities come not from action, but from a series of small events that create character and a sense of place. Like some of the early novels of Gary Paulsen, the setting is in the past, in a small town in Minnesota. Weaver sets his story in the summer of 1965, a time when this country was coming-of-age. The evolution is not only a boy's loss of innocence, but of an America in turmoil. The people Paul meets help shape him, bring him away from his fundamentalist religious upbringing, and give him a peek at what lays beyond the confines of his town. While Paul pumps gas, he learns of the secret affairs of his peers and the town inhabitants. He becomes friendly with a Chicago gangster, witnesses the sexual escapades of the prettiest girl in his school, fools around with a hippie's daughter and comes to understand the hot-headed station manager. He lives side by side with prisoners as his mother makes them houseguests for their day-labor on the farm. In some ways, this book is like a Vietnam-era Peyton Place, set in the midwest, and from a male's perspective. In other ways, it appears to be an episodic memoir with a tinge of nostalgia. Does the book appeal to today's teens? I don't know. The story is good, and the characters are real, full of life, multi-dimensional with down-to-earth problems that are never sensationalized. It certainly appealed to me, but then again, I've been known to watch reruns of The Wonder Years. Still, I can't help but feel that this book has more to it than the appeal towards "oldies" like myself. It has the heart, mild romanticism and open-endedness of a Randy Powell novel. This is excellent writing, the type that still exists in books for youth. Even though to find such a gem, you might just have to do some digging.

Are the young adult novels of my youth gone? On the shelves of the public library where I work, this might just be the oldest YA novel on the shelf. And it's only from 2005. Still, it appears dated. Unlike most of the YA titles published since 2005, it is not dark or edgy in the vampire/ paranormal sort-of post Twilight way. The cover of the book has an actual painting on it, unlike the minimalist design on most YA books that come out from most major publishers in recent years. And even the back cover of Full Service is artfully designed to reflect the dreamy existential ending of the actual story (which I won’t give away here). There are so many books for teens these days where the cover is nothing but a photoshoped close up of a girl's face. And then a curlicued series of lines adorning a slapped on font. It's a real turn off to me, these type of covers. It seems to say that the publisher's don't really care about these books. That they are as disposable as an issue of Teen Vogue. Maybe it's just me getting old. But when I look for a book, I am looking for something with heart. The artwork on the cover of Full Service somehow spoke to me. And when I actually read the book, I wasn't disappointed. I'm glad I found it as it is sure to be discarded soon in order to make place for the latest post apocalyptic epic. Whatever.

Wait, Will Weaver did write a post-apocalyptic book taking place in 2008 (Memory Boy, 2003). And it is being reissued in paperback this year? Shoot. That blows my theories. Also, this was around the time S.E. Hinton wrote a vampire novel (Hawkes Harbor). I’ve also noticed that one of my favorite writer’s of teen thrillers from the 90’s, Christopher Pike, has turned to writing fantasy and vampire books. And his old books that are being reissued have just those types of covers I despise. Yuck! Maybe the world did come to an end.

Or maybe cover design and/or trends are not such a touchy subject to writers and publishers as they are to me. After all, the most famous coming-of-age story of all time, Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, has been reprinted hundreds of time with the notorious blank cover. To quote a young Richard Hell, “I belong to a blank generation. I can take it or leave it each time.”

I suppose I can take it or leave it too. However, in my ideal world, amongst all the variety, I would like to see more realistic stories and books with well thought out painted covers for teens. But perhaps because they are so rare, and there are so many books being published, maybe it’s a good thing. It narrows down my choice. It makes the old stuff more relevant to me.

This is my own coming-of-age. My experience with young adult books. I liked to live in them as a way of holding on to my lost youth and of not growing up. And now that I am an adult, it’s no longer as personal. It’s more about remembering a lost art. It’s about having a love for a lost America. It’s more than nostalgia. It’s an appreciation for what has been lost and forgotten. Old books are like my Route 66. They have been trampled by superhighways. Someone has to remember what it was like before all the traffic. Like mom and pop restaurants. Like truck stops that were not chains. Something that spoke of real possibilities, not technological fantasies. Something that spoke of the American Dream. These are my discard treasures.

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