The Idiot (Modern Library Classics)

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Say You Were Gonna Make a Bomb: On Bud Smith’s ‘Teenager’

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“Just let the happy couple have their happiness, okay. Shakespeare had it wrong. So did all the copycats. Everything didn’t have to end so viciously.”

Fiction writers are always taught to complicate. To engineer adversity, tension, so that, presumably, the final reading experience will feel more realistic—more like life as we know it, but not necessarily as we want it to be. But wouldn’t it be nice if, for once, everything worked out? In Bud Smith’s Teenager, it does—at least for a while. The novel’s first pages see Kody Rawlee Green, the 17-year-old protagonist, escape from a juvenile detention center with relative ease. The stolen keys work. No alarms go off. He manages to steal a car, a gun, canned goods, MREs, lottery tickets, a bunch of cash and a credit card before rescuing his girlfriend, Tella Carticelli, whom he fondly calls Teal Cartwheels, from getting shipped off to Rome by her abusive parents. What follows is a freewheeling, heartbreaking, too-much-too-fast-too-soon journey across America, where the only constant is the couple’s love for each other, their delirious visions for the future rooted in nothing but that all-consuming, all-forgiving love.

That Kody manages an impossible escape in the first two pages is a shrewd move by Smith. It invites the reader into this world with a challenge: if you can’t suspend your disbelief on page one, Teenager warns, you’re going to have a bad time. If, however, you can accept a certain degree of good fortune smiling upon impossible pursuits, if you can look nowhere else but forward, your reward is a beautiful, doomed adventure steeped in a lovely and vital escapism, crashing through the underbrush toward salvation.

For Kody, salvation—of any kind—is sorely needed. Of the many crimes that Kody commits throughout the book,  all in varying degrees of seriousness, the most shocking one comes at the start of Teenager, when he murders Tella’s parents. The righteousness of the act settles in as the narrative progresses: the parental figures inhabiting Teenager leave so much to be desired, the kids seem better off raising themselves. Kody’s birth parents abandoned him from the jump. His foster mother showed him affection, but was unperturbed when her intermittently violent boyfriend knocked him out of a tree, resulting in the metal plate in his head responsible for headaches, seizures, a general off-centeredness. Tella’s father regularly sexually abused her while her mother turned a blind eye, sleeping with ear plugs and a double layer of eye masks to block out the nighttime violations down the hall. The murder is an act of vigilantism, a crime of passion, albeit one with a pure intention behind it: when something harms the one you love, all you want is to destroy that thing, regardless of the consequences. Like Alyosha of The Brothers Karamazov or Prince Myshkin of The Idiot, Kody Green is Smith’s holy fool, taking cues from nothing but his heart, the source of all pain and divine knowledge. Saints, Kody says, “heard instruction from the divine source and had scrambled eggs for brains because of it.”

Teenager is not expressly billed as YA (though it’s easy to see younger readers falling in love with it), but it illuminates the inner lives of teenagers from the sensitive perspective of a writer who hasn’t yet had the exuberant optimism of youth wrung out of him. He writes from what feels like an authentically teenaged vantage point, rather than as an adult trying to imagine how a teenager would see the world. Case in point: when Kody, who suffers from intense seizures, accidentally leaves out his mouthguard during an episode, he bites off a piece of his tongue. Tella finds him face down in a pool of blood on the bed. Instead of worrying about the tongue, she holds him, makes him feel better, they kiss, the tongue starts bleeding again. She understands that all he needs in that moment is her love, medical attention be damned. Meanwhile, I worry about infection and anxiously hope she can figure out how to cauterize the wound. That’s the kind of reader I’ve become—hopelessly practical, analytical to the point of pain.

But, as a moonstruck romantic, I am also Teenager’s target reader. One almost has to be in love—or at least remember being in love, or at least be uncynical enough to still feel charmed by a good love story—to get at the bedrock idea of Teenager, which is that love, regardless of time or place or circumstance, is always right and worth the trouble, and true love, to paraphrase Elizabeth Wurtzel, tends to take care of its own. I was especially moved by the many parallels between the love story of Teenager and my own: like Kody and Teal, my husband and I knew—decided, solidified—that we were It for each other within a few days of meeting. We, like Kody and Teal, were also married by a guy named Bob after six months of courtship. Our wedding, like theirs, also lasted a whole ten minutes, catered with takeout French fries and cheap champagne.

Although various aides and adversaries regularly cross Teal and Kody’s path, it feels as if no one else truly exists in this rendition of America. This American landscape, populated with its cast of fallen angels—drunk boatmen, child psychics, every variety and flavor of pathetic cop—nonetheless feels drab, empty, so tightly are we locked into their world of two. Unlike Kerouac’s American landscape, which Teenager pays homage to, there is not much to learn from the people inhabiting it. For all their personalities, they are ghosts, passing visions in the mad rush to an ever-shifting idea of freedom. Juxtaposed with its timeless narrative, this makes the novel undeniably modern, speaking to our baseline isolation. Over-connected as we are, to the world, to each other, we are also, at the end of the day, just passing through.

Rae Buleri’s hypnotic illustrations, punctuating every chapter, stylistically remind of Ralph Steadman’s contributions to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as does Teenager’s organizing principle: no matter the question, the road is the answer (“Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in,” writes Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing, “the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard…”) Deftly blending media influences and literary genres in ecstatic, rhythmic prose that echoes quintessential American greats, Teenager’s influx of influences is audible, visible—you hear Allen Ginsberg in “Howl”-inspired repetitions, Louis L’Amour in the sprawling, exuberant action sequences, Quentin Tarantino in the decadent violence and off-kilter dialogue, a salute to Thompson in the expansive meditation on the elusive (nonexistent?) American Dream—but Smith’s outsize, cinematic prose is wholly his own.

Teenager is about hope, trauma, self-reliance, the necessity of carving out a piece of the world for yourself—but above all else, it’s a testament to young love. Not necessarily love between young people, but love that is fresh and hungry and luminescent and lifesaving. Love that feels like salvation, for the time we get to have it.

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