I read The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second by Drew Ferguson for the Nerds Heart YA Book Tournament. I hope this review will be a lesson in how a book can be read by someone who is clearly not the target audience, yet still appreciate the good story and good writing.
The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second is written in diary form by Charlie. I found Charlie very endearing from the moment he introduces himself in an essay he’s drafting for college:
My name is Charles James Stewart, II. Charles the Second. My friends call me Charlie. First (AKA Charles James Stewart, AKA Dad, AKA McHenry County’s next state’s attorney) calls me Chip at press conferences, but around the house, I’m usually Smart-ass. Everyone else calls me Ass Bandit or Fudge Packer. I’m seventeen years old, scarecrow gangly at all of 6’4″, and a buck-fifty dripping wet. My nose and ears are way too big, my voice cracks all the time, and I’ve never passed my driver’s test. (Six failures, but who’s counting?) As you can probably tell, I’m one of the cool kids. While some guys in my class already have hair on their chests, I just started getting pubes. And to make me a bigger freak, all three of them are growing in straight.
My extracurricular activities include soccer, being a total music and comics freak, and jacking off like a retarded monkey. C’mon, I’m seventeen, and it’s not like I’ve gotten any action, short of the one time Bob Collins beat off in front of me after a soccer game (and then freaked and totally stopped talking to me).
Written in the opening diary entry, this sets the tone for the whole book. Charlie, more awkward than most and missing that je ne sais quoi that makes some kids cool, is doing his best to get through high school. He has a best friend, Bink, but Bink has just started dating a girl that requires a lot of attention, and Charlie has been on the outs with the girlfriend ever since he was dared to go skinny dipping in the neighbors pool…and did it…and got arrested. He tries to be cool, but he fails miserably! It’s really very endearing. 🙂
A new kid comes to school, Rob Hunt, who’s a great soccer player, really cute, very cool…and gay. Rob and Charlie start dating, so you watch Charlie go through all the issues with falling in love at 17: Does he like me? Did he really just check me out or was I imagining things? Are we moving too fast? Will he think I’m dumb because I’m a virgin? Will it hurt the first time?
To add to all the angst, Charlie’s parents are going through a rough time in their marriage, and despite Charlie’s tough exterior, he really wants his parents to stay together. He worries about what will happen to him if they divorce, and even though he summarily dismisses his father on a regular basis, when it comes down to it, he just wants his father there.
Okay, so here’s the thing: I liked the writing, liked the character development, liked how it made me remember how horrible high school was, liked how realistic Charlie was for a teenager, and liked the issues brought up in the book. But there’s references to Charlie’s dick on every. single. page. And I was like, “I would NOT want my kid reading something so graphic!” And I was wondering why I was reading something that had a target audience that was CLEARLY NOT ME.
One of the questions I asked myself is, “Why is there so much talk of Charlie’s penis??!! Is this necessary to the story?” I decided later that I didn’t think the author could be true to Charlie without putting all the sex in the story. What do teenage boys think about most? Their dicks! That’s just the way things are! And this is his diary, so why wouldn’t he talk honestly and openly about where/how/and with whom he gets off?
I was almost through with The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second when I went to see David Ebershoff, author of The 19th Wife. We got to talking and I told him about The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second and he really changed the way I viewed the book. He pointed out that when he was growing up, he devoured anything about gay men, because he wanted to know what was going on. Teenagers are naturally curious and want to know there’s others in the world who feel the same way they do. It’s particularly important to have books like this for kids wondering if they’re gay, because they can read the book and see if they identify with the character.
David Ebershoff also pointed out that kids often read well above their age level. He got me to admit that I was reading Harlequin books at least at age 15, and those certainly have some steamy scenes! Sometimes we forget what it’s like to be a teenager, and never thinking about sex is not what being a teenager’s about.
A few weeks later I was having lunch with a friend of mine, Arthur, who is 78(?), and I asked him what it was like for him to be a gay teenager in the 1940s, and he said he felt like he was the only person in the world who felt the way he did. When Arthur said that, I really realized how lonely that must feel. It was then that I realized a book like this could be more important than I thought.
I had one minor quibble with the book, and if anyone’s read the book, let me know and we can discuss it. It’s not big enough to mention here, though.
If someone had told me about this book, I guarantee you I wouldn’t have read it. But what a great book I would have missed out on! It just goes to show that a book’s target audience isn’t the only audience who can appreciate and enjoy a book.
Rating: 90 out of 100