There really is a dying girl in this novel, so to say that most of it is a lot of fun seems weird. But it is fun. You should read it.
Seventeen-year-old Greg S. Gaines has spent his adolescence trying to stay off of people’s loser list by staying out of any group or clique–if he disengages, no group will claim him or hate him for hanging with a group they don’t like. He says that high school is where “we are first introduced to the basic existential question of life: How is it possible to exist in a place that sucks so bad?” He sees his high school as chaotic.
None of the cliques is an alpha group that has dominance over the school. In a funny monologue Greg goes through each and explains why (“The stoners? Too lacking in initiative. The gangbangers? Too rarely on the premises.”) He is on good terms with all he meets–band geeks, drama students, jocks, the church kids, the smart kids, and the few rich kids (most of them go to a private school, so there aren’t many around). The problem is that since Greg always keeps things on the surface, he really has no true friends.
Greg does have Earl, whose home life is super chaotic. His mom locks herself in her bedroom and drinks ever since her husband, Earl’s stepdad, went to prison. Earl’s older brothers start fights for entertainment. But Earl has something at home that Greg wants: video games. Greg has something at home that Earl wants: less chaos (and interesting snacks). And so they hang out beginning in in kindergarten. Some years later, after viewing a few of Greg’s dad’s foreign films, the boys decide that they, too, want to make films, and thus begins their filmmaking career.
From his mom, Greg finds out that a girl he knew in middle school, one he had pretended to like as a girlfriend but has not spoken to in years, has acute myelogenous leukemia. Leukemia is a blood cancer, this is a severe form of it, and, yes, Rachel Kushner is dying. Greg’s mom thinks that Rachel could really use a friend, so Greg obliges and makes awkward phone calls to her in chapters titled “Phone Sex” although there’s nothing sexual about them. He just wants us to know how socially inept he is. He then visits her and brings Earl, whose language can be pretty obscene, along.
Rachel becomes sicker, Greg realizes that this is not the typical YA novel love story–the two are not falling for one another–but instead it is about the difficulty of getting through the awkwardness of tragedy.
High school housekeeping: As I’ve mentioned, the novel is a lot of fun. Greg is very self-effacing–he describes himself as looking like pudding.His late elementary and middle school crushes on girls are disastrous but hilarious. One of the best things about this book is how well it shows the awkwardness of engaging with someone–maybe someone you don’t know very well–while that person is suffering a tragedy. The loud, rambunctious, sometimes rage-fueled Earl does a better job. Greg has to be shaken out of his lifelong habit of disengagement. And there a good lesson in continuing to engage, even when things are very awkward because, ultimately, we are all going to need others.