I’m thinking this may be my ‘best YA read’ of 2011 although I know it’s still early in the year.
Cameron, sixteen, lazy, and a not-so-great student is the loser brother of a popular girl, Jenna. He hates school, hangs around with a couple of stoners, periodically indulges with them, and seems to live to irritate his parents—a father who is an university professor and seems to be having an affair with one of his grad students and a mother who is an English prof, unable to make the slightest decision—even what to order in a restaurant.
The family members avoid one another except when Cameron tries to humiliate Jenna in front of her popular friends at school. (“Hey, Jenna. Were those your birth control pills I found in the bathroom this morning?”) That is, until Cameron starts to lose control of his muscles and acts out in class, including punching Jenna’s self-righteous and hypocritically religious boyfriend. Everyone assumes this is the result of a drug problem (even though Cameron swears it’s not) and Cam is expelled and has all privileges taken away at home. But when he goes for treatment, the doctors find that he has Creutzfeldt-Jacob, that is, he has the human version of “mad cow” disease. His brain is deteriorating, and he can’t control his muscles or movements; CJ causes hallucinations. There is no cure.
This hilarious book has been poking fun at societal norms and values. (‘Buddha Burger’ where Cam works makes customer feel like they’re doing something good, being ‘Zen’ by eating there. Nerds reciting lines from Star Fighter—aka Star Wars, everyone wanting to be on a reality show—I don’t know. There’s just too much dark humor in this book! The happiness cult alone makes this worth the read.) Now the narrator is certainly going to die.
Who should appear to save the day but Dulcie—a pink-haired punk angel. She tells Cam he can not only survive, but also save the world from a tear in the fabric of time, made by Dr. X when he was seeking the cure for death. All Cam has to do is go on a quest with his friend Gonzo (the dwarf). After the two ditch the hospital and hit the road, they pick up a third friend, Balder. He seems to be a yard gnome and so has suffered the humiliation of being stolen by college students and carried on travels (as well as being peed on a lot). But Balder is really a Viking god, son of Oden, and in search of his ship, Ringhorn. (If you know anything about Don Quixote, you’ll like this wackiness to the nth degree.)
Take this trip with the three as they fight the Dark Wizard and the fire giants. joining forcing with jazz legends and mad scientists. Answer the big questions in life: Why do we die? And how do we really live? All the while wondering whether the dying Cameron is hallucinating from his hospital bed or if he is finding the meaning of life. Or both.
Note: This is a book for mature readers. There’s significant profanity. (Sample chapter title: “Chapter Four in Which a Brief Sanctuary is Found, I Fail to Comprehend Jazz, and I Am Forced to Have a Conversation with My Asshole Father.”)
Teachers: If you are a Kurt Vonnegut fan, and want to introduce students to this genre (if you can even call it a genre), this is the book to recommend.