I haven’t read a lot in Young Adult Fiction, mostly because I’m overwhelmed with selections in the so-called Adult Fiction category. Along with most other readers (and editors and publishers and reviewers and booksellers and librarians), I can’t draw a bright line between what is YA and what isn’t. I just know I don’t get over to browse our “official” YA collection. So I count myself lucky that I was able to steal this from someone else’s stack of books and drop into Greg Gaines’ world.
Greg has survived until his senior year of high school by being on the fringes of everything and the center of nothing. He hides his love of film (especially the work of Werner Herzog) behind a studied indifference which also conceals his near-constant and brutal self-criticism. (He’s got some points—serious social errors, like flat out complimenting a girl for having two boobs, are enough to make anyone want to tear his own tongue in half.) His parents love him with that bumbling uncritical affection that every teen hates and he has… Earl.
Earl has shared Greg’s love of Herzog since fourth grade, when the two boys tried to film their own version of Aguirre: Wrath Of God, the masterpiece shot on location in the Amazon—kinda tough to do in the local park. Their collaboration extends to their own films: Earl: Wrath of God II, Ran II, Apocalypse Later, and still others featuring Greg’s cat. The thing is, Earl couldn’t be more different than Greg: he’s an inner-city Pittsburgh kid, bright but lost at school, surrounded by unfocused, violent, drug-dealing brothers and a mother lost in alcohol and online chat rooms. Greg’s stable home is a respite for Earl, and Earl is the only person Greg can be himself around.
And then there’s the dying girl. Greg knew Rachel Kushner in Hebrew school, with all its attendant early teen drama, but they haven’t had much to do with each other since. When Rachel is diagnosed with leukemia, Greg’s mom decides it will be a mitzvah, or good deed, for Greg to spend time with her. Awkward, right? But he does, and brings Earl along in his wake. Earl lets slip the secret of their filmmaking and next thing you know Rachel is watching their movies. Even more awkward. Suddenly Greg is open to all kinds of emotional blackmail and everyone around him takes full advantage of it. Even Greg admits that it sounds like an afterschool special—treat the different kid well and you’ll rack up points, feel good about yourself, and Learn A Lesson. But real life is messy, and even Herzog’s art can’t touch it.
Jesse Andrews gives the story a sense of immediacy despite its looking back at events. Internal monologue, conversations role-played as scripts, jump cuts to real life, and Greg’s direct addresses to an unknown audience give the book the feel of documentary, but one that allows raw and sometimes hilarious access to the filmmaker’s mind. That also means Greg’s and Earl’s casual use of insult and obscenity to each other might make the language a little rough for some readers, so be warned on that front.
Check the WRL catalog for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl