Review: Winger, by Andrew Smith

Winger, by Andrew SmithIt always makes me uncomfortable when I feel so negatively about something everyone else seems to love. Everyone’s showering Winger with words like “heartbreaking,” “hilarious,” and “best book I read all year.”

I definitely did not feel that way, so I feel like I need to add my thoughts to the mix. I found the self-deprecating adolescent-boy humor funny for awhile, and then it got tired. (A. J. Jacobs in the NYTimes counted 29 times that Ryan Dean, the narrator, calls himself a loser. By my count that’s about 20 times too many.) I was engaged by the characters for awhile, until it seemed that nothing was ever going to happen to them and I lost interest. There is no reason this needs to be 448 pages long, I thought — Perks of Being a Wallflower told roughly the same story in about a third of that.

But those are all matters of opinion, and clearly lots of people wanted to spend another 450 pages with these characters. There’s a lot of charm in Winger, and I don’t begrudge Andrew Smith his success at all, or judge the people who love the book.

Except. No one is dealing with the ending in their reviews beyond using words like “shocking” and “stunning.” I found the ending of this book disturbing in exactly the wrong way, and I feel like I need to talk about it — if nothing else, for the benefit of the three librarians who read this and might be better prepared if they recommend this book.

GIGANTIC SPOILER

ALSO VIOLENCE TRIGGER WARNING

…OK:

Twenty pages from the end of the book, Ryan Dean’s close friend Joey, who is gay, is beaten to death by a psychotic closet case classmate. From the time Ryan Dean learns this, he has literally ten pages to process it and start to heal. Those ten pages cover a matter of months. This after devoting 200 pages to a week in which he plays a lot of rugby and moons after a girl. To say the pacing here is off would be a drastic understatement.

There’s some foreshadowing, but this is hardly a book about what it’s like to be a gay kid in high school — let alone one with murderously psychotic acquaintances. It’s only sometimes about what it’s like to be friends with a gay kid in high school. Not that I need a book to only be about one thing, of course — this is a slice of high school life, and high school life contains multitudes. But something so huge and so shocking knocks us right out of “slice of life” territory. An act like that demands to be processed, considered, lived with for more than ten pages.

Since that’s all we get, I have to ask, what is the point of Joey’s death in this story? I’m sure this isn’t how Smith meant it, but it felt like the gay friend died so we could watch the straight protagonist be tortured briefly and then share a healing moment with his girlfriend. Joey’s death felt like it wasn’t about Joey at all but about Ryan Dean. Considering that Ryan Dean spent the preceding 438 pages processing and considering every little interaction he had with the people in his life, I found his ten-page transition from self-absorbed grief to self-absorbed healing after Joey’s death to be abrupt and offensive. I thought we were past the era in which gay YA characters have to die to make a point?

Also reviewed by: Kirkus, which starred it. Like I said, everyone loved this but me. If you read it, I’d be curious what you think!

I received a review copy from the publisher.

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4 Responses to Review: Winger, by Andrew Smith

  1. patrick m says:

    I agree that Joey’s death simply doesn’t “fit” the story. I had read before that there was a twist at the end and I had been looking for it (thinking it was going to be about RD and JP or Annie). When I reached the part where RD enters his dorm I guessed that Joey was dead and Casey et al. were guilty but honestly I didn’t want to believe myself. It was too sudden too close to the end. There was no time for the characters (much less me) to process it.

    Unexpected deaths happen in life and high school is part of life. I’ve been through a few myself. But the worst part of any Joey’s death was how pointless it was. It was right at the end. We never got to see how Joey’s death changed those around him (especially RD since how he changed through 11th grade was the subject of the book). Only obvious pretty general reactions were described. RD was changed forever (how I don’t know) and Kevin and Chaz were sad (along with probably many others). Essentially Joey died and O-Hall was closed, everyone’s sad, RD still gets the girl. Nothing changes ergo his death was pointless (unless the book was about the futility of life, love, etc. in which case I was reading a totally different book).

    Which sucks because as a character I liked Joey better than RD. He was older, more mature, had his “shit together.” More than anyone else I feel that RD was most influenced by him. He was like an older brother guiding RD through a pretty confusing time. I can imagine with Joey being gay that time in his life had been much worse and he felt like he needed to watch out for the much younger junior.

    But I digress and will end this rambling. Joey was too integral a character to be killed off so suddenly and with so little impact on the plot. Some other way to resolve the Casey/Joey tension would have been much better or if the author still wanted Joey to die then do it in the middle of the story where the impact can be fleshed out.

    In the end it’s an B- book that would have gotten B+/A- but for the final chapters.

    • Sam says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Patrick! And I agree, I liked Joey’s character a lot — I think I would have enjoyed the book much more had it been from his point of view. (Though of course that would have been a completely different book.)

  2. Emily H. says:

    I’m finding this review very late, but I just wanted to say that I agree. It felt that Joey’s death happened just to prove what a sweet and sensitive guy Ryan Dean was, which felt weirdly smarmy and self-congratulatory. Left a bad taste in my mouth, and the rest of the book wasn’t nearly good enough to make up for it.

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