***Note: this review presumes that you've read the book.***
First, the good. Despite being told in first person, Winger has something of an ensemble cast, the side characters are interesting, and many are well fleshed out. Also, Ryan Dean has a distinctive voice that's unshakable in its consistency. (I sometimes found it annoying, and a little too typically "brilliant, glib YA teen," but it's consistent and strong.) And finally, Joey Cosentino is a wonderfully sympathetic gay character.
This book had unfortunate pacing problems. It's a coming-of-age story, but our hero, Ryan Dean West, doesn't really grow perceptibly until the very end, when the change becomes sudden. The climax--arguably too brutal for the tone of the rest of the book--happens just pages from the end, and Ryan Dean doesn't have enough time to digest it for us in a way that makes the incident itself important to his change. Until then, we are subjected to too much repetition of prose, repetition of plot points we already understand, repetition of his self-absorbed thoughts, and endless narration of every step he takes. It became eye-rolling to hear Ryan Dean tell us "I am such a loser" as the last line of so many chapters, or to wax on about the hotness of the girl or woman he was interacting with. First-person is prone to this sort of repetition, since so much is the internal observations of the main character, and this book needed massive editing to remove it. It's a doorstop of a book for contemporary YA, and given that so much plot happens in the last 1/8th of it, the length up until then feels unwieldy and unedited, not all of it essential. Which means the ending--this horrific event and its aftermath--is rushed.
Ryan Dean is too young. Why is the premise of the book that he's a fourteen-year-old junior in high school? I understand that it sets him apart, and allows him to be immature, but making him, say, fifteen would have made him an outcast, and would have made his hyper-sexualization and athletic ability more believable. Ryan Dean is horny about everything with two X chromosomes, and even if it's true that a fourteen-year-old might think about sex a lot, I find it implausible that he would be attracted to his girlfriend's mother, to every girl in school, to his math teacher, and to nurses in the hospital. Is his horniness over-the-top to be funny? If so, something is sacrificed for the humor: it makes him seem like a caricature. The only person who doesn't make Ryan Dean hard is Mrs. Singer, whom he calls a "cadaver" so often it becomes eye-rollingly repetitious again. Finally, a few times in the story Ryan Dean speaks with a double negative, which seemed out of character for a brilliant kid who knows Latin and is in advanced calculus. Double negatives aren't the same as slang.
Ryan Dean doesn't learn and grow. He actually does grow, but it happens too late. And some of it happens after a heavy-handed plot device--the death of his best friend. No, it's more heavy-handed than that: the death of his gay friend, beaten in a hate crime. (This feels like overkill to me, and manipulative, and perhaps disrespectful of sensitive issues. More on that below.) Ryan Dean is hopelessly in love with Annie, but he has weak morals (intended to be comically weak), and until the very end he still genuinely lusts after other girls (not to mention grown women), even while professing love for Annie. I totally get it that he's supposed to be immature, but a moment for gradual growth to begin was after the saw mill incident, when he has kissed Annie, when he knows she's not entirely out of reach, when he knows what it feels like to get what he really wants. Instead, Andrew Smith squeaks Ryan Dean's growth barely under the wire, by having him apologize to the people he has hurt at the Halloween party, just moments before Smith summarily kills off Joey for the supposed knock-out punch to the reader. Until that party, so late in the word count, Ryan Dean really hasn't changed.
Hate crime. Are we really okay with introducing such a socially important issue so late in the book? Joey discusses the fact that Casey is interested in him, and that Casey is conflicted about his sexuality, but it comes up late, and it's not what Ryan Dean's story seems to be about. Yes, the theme of acceptance is there: there's some discussion between Ryan Dean and Joey about how they're both different in some way from their peers--the famous Venn diagram (John Green much?)--but we are almost exclusively watching Ryan Dean's struggle with being young in this book. We never get to see enough of Joey's struggle to feel the book was leading up to such a catastrophic moment. It becomes a tossed-in plot device, and seems manipulative as a result. Of course, we know that Casey and Nick had violent tendencies, since they were exactly the two people dunking Ryan Dean in a toilet at the opening of the book (an opening that is boring unless you know the ending, by the way). But in retrospect, it seemed to me that Smith wrote that beginning to justify the ending--to justify including the death as a source of Ryan Dean's growth. I feel squicky about this. Joey is a sympathetic character, and killing him off in such a charged way just to end the book with weeping and weight is maybe not okay with me.
Dunking Ryan Dean in the toilet. How-to-write books like to say "open with a moment of change." Don't open with the character waking up in bed. I was surprised that Smith opened with a lingering shot of his character getting "bullied" by being dunked in a toilet. It seemed amateur. What does this tell us about the conflict of the novel (beyond, "Our main character probably gets bullied a lot")? And then I figured out, "Oh, these two football players are going to do something worse later." In other words, we're being told, "These are the bad guys, keep an eye on them." So show us they're the bad guys as you go (which would, incidentally, have strengthened Joey's story). But start with a moment that has more relevance for this story, something to do with Joey or Annie maybe.
Ryan Dean's lack of guilt. One of the drawbacks with introducing a violent climax so late in the game is that it doesn't give Ryan Dean enough time to grow in its aftermath. As a matter of fact, Ryan Dean didn't follow up on his feeling that something was wrong when he entered the girls' dorm and saw evidence of a struggle. Would he be okay, knowing that he heard animal-like cries that night that he didn't follow up on? As I read the passage where he enters the girls' O-Hall floor, I didn't even believe he wouldn't be more insistent about investigating, and I thought Smith "fudged" the details by making Ryan Dean intensely frightened, which wasn't really in keeping with his otherwise brash/bold character, and by having Chas be dismissive, and by having Casey and Nick clean up the mess (so well that apparently Mrs. Singer didn't notice anything). In his pseudo-counseling session with Doc Mom, Ryan Dean never once mentions, "I heard something that night. I knew something that night, and I didn't help Joey. Maybe he was still alive," which I thought would be an obvious place for a child's mind to go. Given that Joey went missing the day after Ryan Dean's eerie feeling that something was wrong, and given that Ryan Dean became increasingly worried about him before others did, it seemed odd that he didn't mention what he'd seen to the administration or even to the police the next morning. In fact, he didn't reveal what he knew until after Joey's body was found. Smith should never have had Ryan Dean see evidence of a struggle, unless he was willing to make coming to terms with the guilt a part of Ryan Dean's growth.
Bookish, or bully? I'm really conflicted about Ryan Dean's personality. I think Smith had trouble deciding what he wanted Ryan Dean's growth to be. Has Ryan Dean always been an obnoxious little bully while at Pine Mountain, or was he once just an insecure bookish boy? When we see him at the tender age of fourteen, he's already willing to fight at the least provocation, he treats women like objects, he's abusive to J.P., he cuckolds his roommate, he makes out with the girl he doesn't love while simultaneously being jealous that someone else is paying attention to the girl he does love. These character flaws are presented as if his youth explains them, as if he's not emotionally savvy, as if these are exactly the ways in which he needs to grow up. But why would Annie have been friends with him in previous years if he had been like this? Or has he changed just this September? Annie's mother tells him "Anyone would be lucky to have you as a friend," but has that really been true as far as we've seen? What is sympathetic about Ryan Dean? Only his relationship with Joey, as far as I can tell, nothing else. Note that Ryan Dean mentions early in the school year that he has gotten into fistfights before, yet he was apparently put into O-Hall for a mere white-collar crime (hacking into a teacher's cell phone). I think Smith wants us to believe that he's the brilliant nerdy kid who doesn't fit in with the older, average kids, the kid who needs to find his niche despite what's different about him. But that character is discordant with the misogynist fist-fighting bully we actually see.
1. So many repeated words and phrases, like "hot," "smoking hot," "skinny bitch ass," "score!" and "I am such a loser." Ryan Dean's voice is so rock solid, this sort of repetition actually detracts.
2. Comics: they are too detailed to be sketched in class (and grayscale, really?). I disagree with readers who say that the comics add a lot to the narrative. They don't advance the story at all. For me, they came off as just another way to tell us that Ryan Dean is exceptional. (In general, Smith seems to conflate "exceptional" with "sympathetic" for this character. Ryan Dean is precocious, athletic, good looking, and also an artist, but very slow on the uptake when it comes to human interactions, to the point where he doesn't redeem himself in time for me to feel satisfied.)