Okay for Now: A Teen Novel, or Just a Good Book?

Okay for Now.
Gary Schmidt
New York: Clarion Books, 2011.

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Joe Pepitone, Aaron Copeland, and James Audubon are three names that are unlikely to occupy a lot of space in the average teenaged consciousness. Given that all three are major tropes in Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now, one wonders whether it’s accurate to call it the “young adult” novel it’s marketed to be. I’d say probably not, but it’s a pretty gripping story no matter how one labels its genre.

The novel is set in 1968, the year fourteen-year-old Doug Swieteck and his family are uprooted from their home on Long Island by their shiftless father and plunked down in the hamlet of Marysville in the Catskills. Doug’s old man is a violent, hard-drinking, no-account loser, as is his bad boy middle brother, a petty thief and fulltime sadist. Older brother, Lucas, is in Vietnam–one of the many working-class poor kids sent as jungle fodder for American imperial ambitions. Relocation to “stupid Marysville,” as Doug calls it, removes him from two of the three things he loves: his closest friends, and the hope of attending a game at Yankee Stadium. Young Doug is a diehard Yankees fan whose one moment of glory in an otherwise dire teen life was a chance encounter with first baseman Joe Pepitone, who gave Doug his hat. (Which his brother stole and destroyed.) Call Doug’s worship of Pepitone a metaphor for Doug’s life–the chronically underachieving Pepitone was the face of the franchise of really, really bad Yankees teams of the mid- and late-60s. (He hit just .251 with 13 homers and 64 RBIs in 1967, the year of his fictional encounter with Swieteck.) The other thing Doug loves is his mother, a kindly woman who tries her best to insulate Doug from his father’s wrath and bears the marks of his violence. Doug also literally bears a cruel stigma of his affection for his mother, not to mention the scars of delayed educational and social development.      

It would be a gross understatement to say that Doug doesn’t have much going for him. As it turns out, though, “stupid Marysville” has some surprises in store. Despite his father’s brutishness and class-based oppression psychosis, Doug will encounter some people who will change his life–his father’s paternalist boss, a gym teacher with demons of his own, an eccentric writer with a fondness for art and music, and a caring teacher. Above all, he’ll find Lil Spicer, who becomes a serious 7th grade crush, and a librarian who introduces Doug to the works of John James Audubon. In sketching Audubon’s birds Doug finds hidden talents, a positive outlet for his long-suffering patience, and metaphors for his life.

As I said, not exactly the sort of fare one would expect the average young person to consume.  I would, however, expect teens to relate to Schmidt’s prose. He simply nails the attitudes, language, and carriage of burgeoning adolescence. Schmidt’s ability to paint a portrait of the interior of teenaged minds rivals that of novelists such as Mark Haddon, Muriel Barbery, and Nick Hornby. He also describes Marysville and the Audubon prints with such clarity that they animate and become characters in their own right. This would be a wonderful book to read and discuss with a young person. It would take some adult input to explain (and perhaps mutually explore) some of the references in the book, but adults will also admire this book and parts of it will take them back to their own frightful junior high days. (The junior high principal alone will make your skin crawl.) High marks for Schmidt for writing a book that’s equal parts tough and hopeful, smart and easy to read, compelling and real. 

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