One-sentence review: Beautiful and so real, this is the deceptively simple story of a boy stumbling and staggering toward maturity, but with a mesmerizing internal grace.
What? Lizzie Bennet is writing a spoiler-free review? I know, the world must be ending, right? But this book is so lovely, and I inexplicably have a platform of 1500 followers now, and none of you is likely to have read it yet (it comes out in 4.5 months), so I feel compelled to use this space to persuade you to put Perfectly Good White Boy on your TBR pile.
The writing. Mesrobian is absolutely fearless, and her dialogue is so real and raw, but when you put it all together the result is beautiful and artful. It's told in first-person, past. The main character, Sean Norwhalt, has one of the richest internal lives I've ever read on paper. I was massively engrossed, even though it's really such a spare, simple story of slow growth. The key is that Sean feels like a real person, not like a character in a book, which made me care deeply about every little thing that happened to him.
The story. Sean Norwhalt starts the book getting lucky. Or at least, it's the kind of "lucky" that some high school boys dream of: the popular, pretty senior inexplicably chooses him as her new boyfriend after a party. Right away we know it's an imperfect, superficial relationship--that Hallie is slightly using him, slightly holding him at bay, and perhaps has problems of her own. Although Sean has an inkling of that, too, the fact of being chosen, of getting to hang around with her friends, and his overwhelming sexual attraction to her, allow him to lie to himself. He also doesn't know any better...yet. After they have sex for the first time he says, without seeing the ambivalence in himself, "I wanted to touch her again. I wanted to leave. I wanted to scream at her." He's secretly a decent, totally immature kid who wants to fall in love but doesn't know how or what real love is. The good parts of him sense that something is wrong in his relationship with Hallie, that there's more in the world. The immature teenage-boy parts of him are fooled by sex. Reason is drowned out by emotional inexperience. It takes the whole book, a special relationship, and a lot of lousy experiences to give Sean the tiny blossoming understanding of what love and friendship are, and to see his potential value in the world. The book doesn't wrap up neatly, but if you peer closely it's quietly hopeful; Sean is definitely on his way.
Fearless writing about sex. Sean is a virgin when he meets Hallie, and their first sexual experience is both horrible and beautiful at the same time. Horrible because while Hallie gives him permission, she doesn't participate: there's no give-and-take, no caring discussion between them about how to give her pleasure (no discussion of her pleasure at all in fact), no sense of a partnership and intimacy and love; and beautiful because Sean's pleasure--his wonder, his wonder at his own pleasure--is a thing to behold in Mesrobian's deft hands. As far as mature, consensual, shared, joyful sex goes, we (adult) readers know that this experience is sort of a dud. But as far as Sean is concerned, the newness, the flood of sensations (tactile and emotional) that being inside a woman give him is a major discovery. We ache for him to grow up and find the same pleasure in a healthy relationship with sharing and love. I see what you did there, Ms. Mesrobian! Here's an example of how frank her writing is:
The little packet crinkled in my hand. How do I know she's really on the pill? What if she's lying? Does she know I've never done it either? What if she did it with Dan? And other guys too?
What if I come the second I put the condom on me?
Finally she was looking at me funny so I just ripped open the packaging. The second I did that, she laid back, her wrist over her eyes, like she couldn't bear to watch what came next or she was getting herself all mentally prepared or something dramatic. This hiding her eyes from me and my dirty condom business might have made me feel bad, but instead I was relieved to go through the whole thing on my own. Chucking the wrapper on the floor. Slipping the little circle-blob from the packet. Unrolling it, all slippery, with its weird Band-Aid smell, down my dick. I mean, it was pretty gross, if you thought about it for a minute. I was glad she wasn't watching. (p. 31, uncorrected proof)
Sean's subtle decency. Sean is not a sparkly vampire. He's not a time traveler or an undiscovered wizard. He has an absent, alcoholic dad and a struggling mom who may or may not have a new boyfriend. Sean is ashamed of the house they're renting, after losing their nice home. He works in a secondhand shop. He likes his boss, hates one of his coworkers, is indifferent to Neecie, the deaf girl from school who works at the shop with him. He loves his dog, Otis. He's annoyed by his brother, Brad--a guy who wants to be helpful, especially to their mom and his fiancee, but can't get past being a jerky older brother, can't listen well. Sean has a wonderful grandfather he hunts with, who seems to understand and believe in him, which seems to ground him somewhat. Sean is an observer. He's not a good student. He doesn't want to apply to colleges. He's not with the program, but he quietly, desperately wants a program of his own. He doesn't want to be a loser, although he appears to be headed that way. The title of the book, which I think is a reference to a line in the movie Better off Dead, is perhaps meant to be the possible outcome, if something doesn't happen soon to Sean...if he doesn't grow up. (In the movie, a couple of black electricians are working on a telephone pole and see a garbage truck go by with an unconscious young man inside. One worker says to the other, "That's a damn shame. Throwing away a perfectly good white boy like that.")
Sean is an observer, which gives us the massive hint that he cares:
"We're doing the flowers now," Krista said. "We got grow lights and everything. I found this website where it's all laid out. It's so AWESOME! Your brother's even here tonight! Isn't that AWESOME? Come on up and help us!"
Krista thought everything was AWESOME. Not just Brad and her wedding plans--putting flowerpots on each of the guest tables for favors to take home--but margaritas, certain reality shows, cars with leather interiors, strapless bridesmaid gowns, Weight Watchers fudgesicles, giant sofas that looked like they were ready to explode from overstuffing--these were considered AWESOME too.
In so many ways, Mesrobian allows us to see that Sean is fighting to be a good person: the way he makes sure Neecie, who is deaf, can see his lips when he's talking. If she can't see him, he makes sure to touch her arm to get her attention. There are tiny "decent-kid" cues in his behavior, that even he doesn't see, like driving safely: "Getting back on the country road from the lake involved paying attention [to steering], so Neecie was lucky I didn't ask her anything for a while." He has a personal code of honor, even when it's gruffly spoken: "The only guys who talked about sex in long gross detail were generally total douchebag liars."
Sean and Neecie both have functional families that are also a little dysfunctional. But the family love is there for each of them, and it's what gives this story such a powerful but always tenuous hope. His mom stays up on New Years Eve watching the ball drop on TV with her boyfriend/not boyfriend, both of them tying "little ribbons to some crazy thing that had to be for Brad and Krista's wedding." The affection the Norwhalt family feels for Otis, the dog, is palpable. Neecie's family works together to create a nest of a home, and to keep the younger siblings safe.
Disability. Neecie's deafness is handled beautifully. I finished this review and almost forgot to mention it, because it's so organic to the story. It's just a part of who she is, like her hair color (thin, plain, very straight blond), and her tendency to create a shrine of weird objects in the resale shop. Maybe her disability contributes to her lack of self-esteem in her relationship with a boy named Tristan, maybe it doesn't. That connection is never explicitly discussed. Her beauty as a person is indistinguishable from her beauty as a deaf person.
The cover. Ugh, no Carolrhoda Lab! This cover is boring, boring, boring. It's too monochromatic, and oddly unrelated to anything in the book. I appreciate that it's gender-neutral, but not a single customer in the world will choose this book because of its cover. You can't rely on word-of-mouth to do all your selling for you.
In sum. Perfectly Good White Boy is not action-packed, but I found it entirely riveting to be in Sean's head, because he has such a muddled teenage grace about him. This book is about one American boy's slow growth to maturity. It's very subtle, very real, and gently moving.