by Matthew Quick
High School Little, Brown 252 pp.
3/12 978-0-316-12797-4 $17.99
When Russ moves to decrepit, race-torn, Irish-mob-ruled Bellmont after his parents’ brutal murder, the school’s basketball coach (a family friend) turns to team leader Finley to help him acclimate, but also to convince former-phenom Russ to play ball again; since the tragedy he goes only by “Boy21” and insists he’s from outer space. Despite inherent awkwardness, the two boys are immediately comfortable together: reserved, compassionate narrator Finley doesn’t push Boy21 to be someone he’s not ready to be, and a tender friendship develops. That basketball is only a cursory detail in their relationship becomes clearer when tragedy also strikes Finley’s life and basketball “just doesn’t seem so important anymore.” Russ’s alien alter ego gracefully, almost unnoticeably, dissolves as he sees his friend in similar anguish; his coping as Boy21 suddenly seems like a logical reaction to such disorienting pain. Fascination with the cosmos is a recurring theme, both as acknowledgment of our tininess within the enormous universe and as a soothing force of stability. Every aspect of this multilayered novel harmonizes: secondary characters such as Finley’s girlfriend Erin and his handicapped grandfather are artfully likable; non-gratuitous threads of organized crime and violence add grittiness and are woven through the plot with finesse; excellently set-up twists display Quick’s mastery of pacing; authentic dialogue and deft character development ensure both our emotional investment in these richly complex boys and also our empathizing with their main commonality — feeling like “you’re not the person on the outside that you are on the inside.”
From the May/June 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.