Monday, October 28, 2013

Schlimazel Phase: Twerp by Mark Goldblatt

January 11, 1969

My English teacher, Mr. Selkirk, says I have to write something, and it has to be long, on account of the thing that happened over winter recess--which in my opinion, doesn't amount to much. It's not like I meant for Danley to get hurt, and I don't think that what happened was one hundred percent my fault, or even a lot my fault, even though I don't deny that I was there. So I guess I deserved to get suspended like the rest of them.

But now the suspension is over and Selkirk says I've got to write something. I know what's going on. Selkirk thinks that if I write about what happened, I'll understand what happened. Which makes no sense, if you stop and think about it, because if I don't understand what happened, how can I write about it?

I know there's going to be a Julian Twerski in the future that's going to look back and maybe shake his head. (That last sentence should make you happy, Mr. Selkirk.) But when I look back right now, I'm just saying that what happened with Danley Dimmel isn't the worst thing I've done.

As an incentive, Mr. Selkirk offers to substitute Julian's diary for a report on Julius Caesar, and Julian readily agrees, beginning a semester of writing, a first-person stream-of consciousness journaling that recounts the misadventures of Julian (Twerp) Twerski and his friends on the block--Lonnie, their charismatic leader, Quick (because he's slow on the uptake) Quentin, Eric the Red, (because he's a rehead) Howie Wartnose, (because his last name is Wurtzberg), and Schlomo Schlomo (because his mom always calls him home that way.) The gang centers their activities in a scruffy vacant lot they call Ponzini (because it's behind the apartment of Victor Ponzini and because they have to call it something.)

Ponzini is the focal point where most of Julian's misadventures begin.  It's the place where Lonnie taunted him into chucking a rock into an amazingly dense flock of pigeons who have landed there between two rusted out cars.
"C'mon, Julian, chuck a rock."
"You chuck a rock."
"Don't you want to see 'em take off at once?" said Lonnie.
"I might hit one of them," I said.
"C'mon," Lonnie said. "It'll be like a science experiment."

Like most of Lonnie's ideas, it's a bad idea, but despite his own best instincts Julian chunks the rock, hits a pigeon, and is wracked with guilt when the pigeon finally dies. Lonnie's ideas always seem to end badly for the impulsive Julian and the rest of the guys. Quentin gets his eyebrows and most of his hair burned off when the guys pool their leftover Fourth of July fireworks into one big bang. Then Lonnie persuades Julian to ghost-script a letter pitching his love to  Jillian, the girl of his dreams, and with predictable results: Jillian thinks the letter is from Julian and even begins to sit with him at lunch, putting him on the outs with Lonnie. Trying to impress his buddies, Julian smarts off in social studies, not with his regular teacher, Mr. Loeb, who is himself a josher, but the untried intern Mr. Caricone:
It started, I guess, a couple of weeks ago, when he taught us about India.  I like that kind of stuff.... We got real deep into India.
Mr. Caricone began last week's class with the question, "Does anyone remember how the government takes the census in India?"
I called out, "One little, two little, three little Indians!"
The entire class cracked up.

Through it all Julian clings to the belief that, no matter what, he's the fastest kid in the school, until Jillian's family takes in an enormous thirteen-year-old from Guatemala, Eduardo, whose quick moves in games of tag strike fear in Julian as the annual Field Day approaches.  Bad outcomes seem to follow Julian's every move, and as events pile up, one by one his buds start to shun him. When Julian blows a pop quiz at schul,  Rabbi Salzberg sums it up:
"Mazel, by itself, means "luck." Thus, "schlimazel" means "bad luck," the rabbi said.
"Am I a schliemazel?" I asked.
"No, Mr. Twerski, you're just going through a schlimazel phase."

Schliemazel Phase is not a bad term for the temporary insanity that is early adolescence, that critical turning point in the making of the man (or woman), and the key to ending Julian's schliemazel phase seems to be for him to confront his personal responsibility in what happened with Danly Dimmel (a.k.a, Stanley Stimmel) back in December. Julian's last diary entry tells all, in Mark Goldblatt's hit first novel, Twerp (Random House, 2013), with his spot-on depiction of the yin and yang of personal conscience vis a vis group pressure.  Both a drop-dead funny boyhood story and a dead serious coming-of-age novel,  Julian Twerski's self-revelatory diarist holds his own with the great boy characters of literature--Tom Sawyer, Tom Brown, Penrod Schofield, and Holden Caulfield, right up to Jack Gantos' Joey Pigza and various Jacks, and James Patterson's Rafe Khatchadorian. As Kirkus Reviews puts it, "Goldblatt's tale provides a thought-provoking exploration of bullying, personal integrity and self-acceptance."

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