Tuesday, November 11, 2008

National Book Award Finalist: The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp

Sutter Keely is a "right now" kind of guy who skitters across the shiny surface of the irresistible moment. A good-hearted high school senior with no plans for college ("Who needs algebra? Who needs college?") and no plans for anything except for his next whiskey and SevenUp and the next girl he can charm with his funny stories and disarming smile.

Sure, he's just been dumped by his "beautiful fat girlfriend," Cassidy and by a long string of girls before her, all of whom continue to pal around with him, but all of whom dropped him because of, to Sutter, the inexplicable reason that they saw no future with him.

I have no regrets, though. No bitterness. I just wonder what the hell was going on inside their brains, inside their hearts, back in those days when we should've been getting closer and closer. Why did they want a different Sutter than the one they started out with? Why is it that now I'm friends with every one of them and it's always fun when we run into each other? Why is it that girls like me so much but never love me?

Listen, it's hard not to have a good time around me. I know what I'm doing. I'm a fun guy. I spread the prosperity to each and all.

Then after an all-night drinking-and-driving spree, Sutter wakes up, without his car, in the scruffy front yard of Aimee Finecky, one of the smart, invisible nerd-girls in his sophomore French class, pale and quiet and obviously oblivious to the spectacular now that's always out there for Sutter. He takes Aimee on as a project, to bring her out, teach her to drink and to party, and speak up for herself with her impossible mother and stepdad. Sutter's not worried that Aimee will become too attached to him, because he knows that she will eventually find him wanting like all the others.

But then Sutter finds himself growing more and more attached to her. She's no standout beauty like his other girls, but she's, like, deep, and although she gets his trademark humor and learns to enjoy drinking and partying with him, she also seems to be falling in love with a future that includes both of them. She plans out how they will go to college, find jobs, and move in together after they graduate, even though he knows that with his hard-nosed algebra teacher on his case, his graduation is growing ever more unlikely.

And finally she persuades Sutter to search out his long-gone dad to find out why he left suddenly, never even calling over the past decade. Together she and Sutter drive to meet him in Ft. Worth on the agreed-upon Saturday, only to find that his dad has already forgotten about the meeting. His father is a bit drunk, gets into a public fight with his lady of the moment, also tanked, and the whole thing ends with his dad leaving and not coming back. Suddenly Sutter sees the future--the one he's always dodged--in his own father's life.

Same old dad. Long gone and no goodbyes.

All these years I cut him slack. I made up excuses about how Mom chased him away. He was really a good guy, I told myself. At least there was one parent out there that still cared about me--my great, majestic dad.

Yeah, right.

Nobody had to chase him away. He was all too glad to ditch us. He probably ran up a bunch of debt before he skipped off, too, left it for Mom to pay off, or to round up Geech to pay it off for her. No wonder she can't stand having me around. I remind her too much of the old man.

And that's what's really scary. Maybe I am like him. Maybe I'm headed nowhere but to the same Loserville he ended up in.

Author Tim Tharp doesn't take the easy way out with this one. Sutter promises himself to reform, to control the party drinking and do what the loyal and loving Aimee asks to make their future together, but in the end there's no happy ending here for Sutter.

But, for Aimee, maybe there is.

"See, I do have a future to give her after all," he concludes at last, "just not one that includes me."

Tim Tharp's just published The Spectacular Now is one of five finalists for the 2008 National Book Award for Literature for Young People, to be announced November 19.



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