October 18, 2011

Why I Signed 'Have You Seen Me' - An Apologia.

Have You Seen Me, by Katherine Scott Nelson

Apologia: A deliberately all-positive critical essay, done specifically as a persuasive argument for other people

Why I Signed 'Have You Seen Me' -- An Apologia

It's no secret that I can sometimes be awfully critical of coming-of-age tales here, mostly because so many of them seem content to simply wallow in a series of lazy tropes that have now been used seemingly hundreds of times (for example, all you Nick Hornby fans, the literary world no longer needs even a single further indie-based top-ten list ever again in human frakking history); but when a coming-of-age tale is done well, like it is in CCLaP's newest original book, Katherine Scott Nelson's Have You Seen Me, it has the ability to tap directly into a deep, hidden part of our inner brain that we often forget as adults is even still there, from a time when emotions ran deeper in our lives and every lesson learned seemed more important, precisely because we were learning them for the first time. Even as we get older, we still find it important to tap into this youthful passion on a regular basis, to remind us of why we feel certain ways about certain topics in the first place, to remind us of the often painful steps that led to us coming to those conclusions the hard way; and that's why coming-of-age tales continue to be perpetually popular among adults, apart from and for different reasons than why these themes now seem to be popping up more and more in Young Adult titles as well, designed in those cases for actual teens actually going through the experiences for the first time.

The story is set in a place and circumstance that so many of us Midwestern artists can relate to -- a small and generally backwards town in rural mid-1990s Nebraska, among two bohemian high-school juniors who are both gay (one girl, one boy), impatiently counting the days until they can leave their backwater burg and lead their atypical lives worry-free in public. When Vyv, then, the one with the hair dyed "Girl With Problems Red," decides rashly one day that she simply can't take any more, and that she's going to run away to eventually end up in New York City, it's up to her best friend Chris, a poetically stoic teenage boy with a surprisingly conservative attitude about life, to both keep her secret and throw the locals off the scent, the nervous populace quickly whipped up into a Clinton-Era panic attack about child abductions and small-town safety, the guilt eating away more and more at Chris as he's forced to watch Vyv's parents become more and more worried, confused in his head over where the line lays between being loyal to his friend and relieving at least some of the pain of those who are concerned about her.

And that leads us to the main reason I signed this book, also I think the main reason that its fans are going to love it so much: that despite the specifics of its artsy cast of characters, Have You Seen Me is a surprisingly traditional story, best described as taking an incredibly engaging narrator and then putting him through a series of basic but important moral tests for the first time in his life, questions that get both more subtle and more complicated as we get older and older, but that so many of us seemingly grapple with for the the first time right in these late-teen years. (What is 'right?' What is 'wrong?' Is it acceptable for this answer to change depending on the situation? To change from one person to the next?) Because it's not just the central question of whether or not to keep Vyv's secret that Chris is grappling with, but a whole plethora of ethical issues all occurring during one event-filled summer: if there's a way to help his permanently unemployed dad get out of his worsening depression; how to best help his proud but rapidly declining tough-guy grandfather, and how to best deal with his systemic homophobia; whether it's acceptable to keep working for a radical-left Unabomber-type loner named Albert (in my opinion, one of the most memorable characters in the entirety of CCLaP's publishing program), as he conducts a "rewilding" experiment in the woods on the edge of town, even as Chris slowly discovers more and more disturbing and violent details about Albert's attitudes and aims; even whether it's proper for him to seek medication for a feral, sick housecat who has become the pair's unofficial mascot during their construction work that summer, or whether he should heed Albert's command to "let nature take its course," to truly never be the master over another living creature, even if it means letting it die a preventable death.

Using a gentle wit and a sculptured style, Katherine brings those issues more and more to a head as this funny yet dark book continues, with a climax that I'll let remain a surprise, but let's just say has made me cry almost every time I've now read it, of the ten or fifteen read-throughs we did of this during its editing; and then if this isn't enough, ze adds a double-whammy surprise-surprise at the very end, something not necessary for the plot but that suddenly gives us a much deeper and better understanding of the two main characters in question, a twist both ingenious and that makes us smack our foreheads and utter, "Duh, of course!" And so when all is said and done, this is no mere exercise in nostalgia and pop-culture name-dropping that so many coming-of-age tales seem to be, but a practical examination of issues important to all our lives, a look at the struggle to "do the right thing" and how exactly is the best way to determine that in the first place.

For the extremely random way that this manuscript came to the center's attention (Katherine was simply a member of the CCLaP Facebook group, and one day I sent a note to all the people in that group who listed themselves as writers in their profiles, asking if they happened to be working on something right that moment), I think that Have You Seen Me is one of the most purely entertaining titles that CCLaP has now put out in the four years of its publishing program, a title that I think holds a wide appeal and that will be attractive to readers across a wide range of boundaries. If you still haven't done so, I encourage you to download a copy for yourself as soon as possible.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:35 PM, October 18, 2011. Filed under: Arts news | CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles | Reviews |