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magazine's witty, cheeky book critic Walter Kirn rides high in his exhilarating second novel, and so does his protagonist, Minnesota teen dweeb Justin Cobb. Justin's hippie dentist may have hypnotized him out of his socially perilous thumbsucking habit, but he can't suppress the boy's "oral gift." Justin's mouth just won't quit: beer, decongestants, nitrous oxide, cough syrup, Midol, and Ritalin go in, and out spritzes hilarious commentary on his eccentric yet authentic life and times. Our hero's mood larks and plunges erratically, but Kirn's prose is alert, artful, under control. The debate coach's skin is "the neutral hue of turkey meat." One of Justin's realistically inconclusive crushes is a redhead "with freckles the color of new pennies." Her dad is a Limbaughesque columnist who calls welfare recipients "food tramps." Meanwhile, Justin's dad, Mike, is "the Führer of fly-fishing," an ex-gridiron hero obsessed with deer hunting (and eating). He's also prone to spouting his vile old coach's preposterous apothegms ("Until you're broken, you don't know what you're made of"). Mike is funny and poignant--a tricky note to hit.
Like a mucked-up modern Huck Finn plying his own stream of consciousness, Justin drifts into weird scenes: a job at a gas station fated for torching, a visit by his mad Winnebago vagabond grandparents, a kidnapping caper to rescue a pothead infant from sinister hick parents, Grit and Munch. Chapter 4, about a Chippewa City debate meet and rather chaste orgy, is dazzling teen satire. Not that Thumbsucker is flawless: Justin's nurse mom is a vague character, his more vivid kid brother is inexplicably ignored, the satire of the Hazelden celeb rehab is lame, and, like Huck's, Justin's adventures sort of peter out instead of leading up to a slam-bang finale. The family's conversion to Mormonism seems arbitrary, though richly detailed, since Kirn was a small-town Mormon kid.
Flaws, schmaws. Thumbsucker is the truest book about adolescence I've read since This Boy's Life, and Kirn is some kind of comic genius. --Tim Appelo
This eighties-centric, Ritalin-fueled, pitch-perfect comic novel by a writer to watch brings energy and originality to the classic Midwestern coming-of-age story.
Meet Justin Cobb, "the King Kong of oral obsessives" (as his dentist dubs him) and the most appealingly bright and screwed-up fictional adolescent since Holden Caulfield donned his hunter's cap. For years, no remedy--not orthodontia, not the escalating threats of his father, Mike, a washed-out linebacker turned sporting goods entrepreneur, not the noxious cayenne pepper-based Suk-No-Mor--can cure Justin's thumbsucking habit.
Then a course of hypnosis seemingly does the trick, but true to the conservation of neurotic energy, the problem doesn't so much disappear as relocate. Sex, substance abuse, speech team, fly-fishing, honest work, even Mormonism--Justin throws himself into each pursuit with a hyperactive energy that even his daily Ritalin dose does little to blunt.
Each time, however, he discovers that there is no escaping the unruly imperatives of his self and the confines of his deeply eccentric family. The only "cure" for the adolescent condition is time and distance.
Always funny, sometimes hilariously so, occasionally poignant, and even disturbing, deeply wise on the vexed subject of fathers and sons, Walter Kirn's Thumbsucker is an utterly fresh and all-American take on the painful process of growing up.
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