Warning: this review contains spoilers. To read them, highlight the black bars, read at your own risk, and enjoy 🙂
To finish off LGBT Pride Month (belatedly) and celebrate American Independence Day, why not we review an LGBT young adult novel that’s recent (and is technically about American story/cinema), and what Kirkus Reviews called, “A Holden Caulfield for a new generation.” Really?
Enter Tim Federle’s debut novel, “The Great American Whatever”.
As a sixteen year-old who wanted to become a screenwriter, Quinn Roberts planned to enter a film competition with Annabeth, but that all changed after a car crash that took her life. Six months of therapy and staying inside his room later, Quinn doesn’t like talking about his sister, and hasn’t even turned in the application letter for a film competition he and Annabeth were gonna enter. Now? He has no idea what to do, not after the accident.
Hoping to get him out of his house, his best friend Geoff drags him to a college party to loosen up. There Quinn falls head-over-heels for an Iranian-American college student named Amir, who plans to move to San Francisco the following week, but not before connecting with Quinn and making him believe in having a future again.
And following that? It’s basically a retread of “Catcher in the Rye” again, but I mean it in all the best ways.
Going back to my review of “Twisted“, which I called “What Catcher in the Rye should’ve been!”, I may have to explain much more. Because while people equated Holden Caulfield with teenage rebellion (which he isn’t; the mantle still goes over to Tyler Miller), Quinn here is more of teenage angst and identity.
I feel more for Quinn because he’s more than a kid who shouts ‘phony’ and whines about society for a whole book. He’s essentially what Holden could’ve been and should’ve been. Not that Quinn isn’t cynical or have hypocritical moments either, but he has a more well-defined personality and clear-cut reasons for his behavior. Quinn, to the author’s credit, is fairly interesting in how he perceives his life.
Between his references to classic films, directors and moments when he imagines parts of his life in the format of a movie script, we see how passionate he is as an individual and a screenwriter. Especially when he compares his sibling relationship to the Coen Brothers or the Wachowskis.
Amir is also a breath of fresh air. He isn’t a complex character, but his easy-going personality and the relationship he forms with Quinn (and how he asks him out) is charming. Although he’s three years older, it is hard to remember that in his conversations with Quinn. I like how he doesn’t talk down to him like a kid, and more like someone his age. You also have to admire how they connect with each other, knowing that they only have a week together. By the time the book is over, when both characters spend their last night talking for hours, and then having sex before Amir leaves, knowing they’ll never see each other again, but are happy to end on good terms with each other, it feels…right. I haven’t read a novel that handles a situation like this more maturely.
If there were any faults here, besides Quinn not going for the chance of a lifetime after he learns Annabeth and Geoff secretly submitted his work to a film competition, it’d be a couple things. For one, the side characters in this book are lacking personality or character. Beside Geoff as a supportive best friend and Ricky Devlin (Quinn’s former neighbor/lifelong idol who supported his hobby,and is probably the best-written role model in years. Seriously, that scene where Quinn meets with him after not seeing for years was funny and heartwarming), I felt like “The Great American Whatever” could’ve dived more into the side characters.
We got plenty with Amir and Geoff near the end, but what about that Blake guy near the beginning? Or more of Carly? According to the author himself, this book was supposedly longer, and it can show sometimes. However, that doesn’t mean the writing and relationships between the characters isn’t great.
Probably the strongest element of “The Great American Whatever” is the bonds between the characters and the dialogue. We enjoy seeing Amir and Quinn talking about their lives with each other, we enjoy the quips and hard conversations between Quinn and his mother, as well as the friendship between Geoff and our protagonist (seriously, these two are on-par with Aaron and Thomas from “More Happy than Not“). And the confrontation they have when it’s revealed Geoff and Annabeth were in a relationship before her death, and how much it has affected Geoff was tearful, poignant, and all of it comes from the dialogue between them.
Oh yeah, I should mention that the vocal writing in this is superb. In each sentence, the dialogue sounds like real-life dialogue, and fully conveys each character’s emotion; happiness, anger, jealously, confusion, anxiety, attraction and the simple desire to talk. And that’s what makes this novel stand out so much.
Overall, Tim Federle’s debut novel is a really good book. It isn’t powerful or groundbreaking by any means, but “The Great American Whatever” certainly gives us a character who lives up to what Kirkus Reviews called him. Hell, maybe he’s even an improvement over Holden Caulfield, because we have more character development, more charm, more heart, and a style that both mocks and pays homage to the great American story. Although Quinn coming out is more of a subplot, “The Great American Whatever” lives up as a great LGBT American story.
You can purchase the book here: https://amzn.to/30Oicl0
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