The Corey Vilhauer Book of the Month Club: October 2006

October 2, 2006 | 1 book mentioned 1 3 min read

I’m not ashamed to admit it. I was young once. So were you.

Of course, there are lots of things I’m ashamed to admit about my youth. But I’m not ashamed to say that I was young at one time, and that during that one time I may have done things that were entirely “not cool” and that by doing those things, I managed to ostracize myself from all of the other people who called themselves my classmates.

Jason Taylor isn’t that different. From me. From you. We all went through it – whether it was on the cool, invited-to-every-party side or the ridiculously dorky, playing-board-games-with-your-parents side. What makes him different is his ability to transcend everything, to be brilliant and thoughtful and clever while being torn apart by the wolves that make up the popular group.

coverIn his head, that is. Jason’s not actually bringing any of these traits into the open. In David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green – our book of the month, if you haven’t caught on – Jason Taylor is a virtuoso; a child who has mastered the art of words at a young age but hasn’t quite mastered the art of fitting in. He’s a poet, which is either wonderful or terrifying, depending on your views. To Jason, it was terrifying.

Imagine, if you are male, telling your classmates that you were a ballerina. Or that you wore dresses. That’s the same stigma Jason lived with. Oh, that and the fact that he couldn’t speak without stammering (which is different from stuttering), thus making all of his word-ly talents null and void when it came to saying them out loud.

Black Swan Green is set as a series of short stories, joined together in chronological order but not directly tied into each other from story to story. It’s also a classic coming of age story, although instead of “learning how to survive life,” Jason finds himself “learning how to survive middle school.” This, as we all know, is more dangerous than anything life has afterward.

Remember the feeling you had when a group of older kids came wandering down the path? That feeling of dread as you hoped they wouldn’t notice you? As you hoped they would just walk on by? That’s Jason’s life. It’s a little chapter out of each of our lives. And it’s nearly frightening how Mitchell pens a story so incredibly close to our awkward adolescent lives.

Mitchell has a way with drawing the life out of a common experience – that naughty girl that you kind of liked; the feeling of being (finally) included into the cool kids’ group, even if only for a moment; the overbearing chore of keeping your parents off of the scent that you were being bullied, because after all, there’s nothing worse than your parents getting involved in a school terror ring. It’s all spelled out, exactly the way it happened. It’s stark, it’s hopeless, but eventually, it’s empowering and triumphant. Jason doesn’t just get picked on; he fights back and wins a few battles of his own.

If you were one of the kids that slid through school without a care, knowing that when it came down to it you were bred to be successful and rich and fantastically popular, then you should read this book. Just to see the Hell you put the rest of us through. And if you were in Hell during those times, then maybe it would be a good idea to read Black Swan Green as well – to soak in the bad moments and realize, “Hey, I turned out all right. I persevered, and now (hopefully) I am living a richer and more wildly-varied life than any of those popular Neanderthals are.”

After all, we shouldn’t forget what made us, right?

Corey VilhauerBlack Marks on Wood Pulp
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is a writer based in South Dakota