Monday, September 05, 2016

Gut Check: Gutless by Carl Deuker

Early in eighth grade I caught a break. Our goalie didn't show up for a game and Coach looked long and hard over his bench and said, "Brock, get in the goal." That game I stopped every shot.

I thought I was a natural goalkeeper--good hands, quick reactions, foot speed--I had it all. Then came the game against Addams Middle School.

We were winning, with only a few minutes left. The ball somehow popped loose, and a blond guy took off down the sideline.... bearing down on me. He wasn't trying to deke me either; he was coming right at me, intent on rolling right over me.

I knew what to do: charge him, cut down on his angle. I took a step and then fear paralyzed me. I took a step back, tripped, and fell. He roared right by me.

Brock knows he's failed the gut check moment. He now knows what he's suspected all long: he's absolutely terrified to take a hit.

And then, during that summer before high school, Brock is noticed by the father of the football team's quarterback Hunter Gates, who beckons him across the field. He's noticed Brock's speed on the soccer field and asks him to work with the passer as long receiver. Brock dislikes and fears the arrogant Hunter, but something makes him agree, a desire he didn't know he had. And it's true; Brock and Hunter click.

I caught Hunter's bullets--most of them. His father came over.

"Have you thought about playing football? With your speed and those hands you could be a star."

He winked. "Girls go for wide receivers. You could have your pick."

Brock knows that a guy who is afraid to take a hit is not a natural for football, but the coach is pleased with his speed and because of his slender frame offers to use him only for long passes where he can score or sideline the ball without much danger of being tackled. And so Brock becomes an unlikely varsity football player for Crown Hill High School.

Although girls aren't exactly falling all over him as promised, Brock realizes that being on the team and giving Hunter a chance at racking up statistics has another virtue. He's safe from the nasty bullying that Hunter and his cabal exact on anyone they pick as a victim--especially Brock's first new friend at Crown Hill, Richie Fang. Richie is a natural target for Hunter--short, Chinese, brilliant at math, the violin, chess, and every other nerdy skill, but outgoing, always joking, and totally unwilling to kowtow to Hunter and his henchmen. On signs announcing Richie's awards, they change his last name from Fang to "Fag." And when Richie refuses to be intimidated, Hunter and his friends "can" Richie, forcing him into a garbage can and rolling it down the stairs.

Although Brock still fears Hunter, he remains friends with Richie, sharing worries about a seriously ill parent, playing online chess, and helping him prepare a project for national competition. And then before his sophomore year, Brock has an idea. Richie is a standout soccer player, and the football team has no decent kicker. Brock convinces Richie to try out, and with a little coaching, he becomes the team's kicking specialist. With Brock stronger and faster and Richie punting and point kicking, the Crown Hill team makes it to the playoff game against the mighty O'Dea High team. Late in the game with the score 35-35, Richie kicks a field goal that puts them ahead with only 20 seconds left. O'Dea fumbles the ball, and Crown Hill recovers and mounts a goal-line stand. With three seconds left Coach calls a time out.

"Okay!" he shouted. "Go into punt formation, but don't punt. Just let the clock run down, and then take a knee. Wait till you see zeroes, and then kneel."




I heard the horn, and then I saw Richie throw the ball into the air and run to join the guys jumping crazily along the sidelines.

We'd won!

Only they hadn't. Not knowing the fine points of football, Richie had not taken a knee. And in football the game isn't over until the ball is downed. One of O'Dea's linemen in the end zone had caught the ball that Richie joyfully tossed high, in soccer style celebration, and O'Dea takes the win.

And Brock knows that Hunter Gates and the others are sure to take furious revenge on Richie, and soon.

There's no easy win for anyone in Carl Deuker's forthcoming Gutless (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), a coming-of-age story worked out on the playing fields and in the halls of a high school. Brock faces the ultimate gut check in a dramatic climax that few readers will see coming. Everything in this novel rings true: the setting is realistic, the characters are skillfully drawn and the plot develops naturally but relentlessly from the interplay of their personalities. Readers attracted to this novel in hopes of a hard-hitting sports saga will not be disappointed by the game play passages, but will be challenged by the unexpected ethical choices embedded in Deuker's premise.

As a more-than-sports novel with a serious life-changing theme, Gutless compares well with Kwame Christopher's 2015 Newbery-winning The Crossover, also published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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