Teenage fiction

21st July 2000 at 01:00
The USA today: apple pie or toxic burgers? Sharon Creech's The Wanderer (Macmillan pound;10.99) offers the former - rich, warm and sweet with no cloying aftertaste (now that's an achievement).

Sophie, the principal narrator, joins her three uncles (one nice, two difficult) and two cousins (one nice, one insufferable) on a yacht, sailing from Connecticut to England, to see her grandfather Bompie. Or so her diary tells us. But her (nice) cousin Cody offers a counter-narrative: Sophie is an orphan, adopted into the family, and has never met Bompie. So why does she claim to know Bompie's childhood stories? Is she lying? Is she nuts? And what happened to her parents? The adults aren't telling.

The intense experience of a dangerous sea voyage softens characters and mends relationships, and Bompie, when Sophie reaches him, does not disappoint. This is a vivid, exciting book: a novel about healing, written with skill and humour.

However, Creech's superb novel Walk Two Moons, a Newbery Medal winner in the United States, also describes a physical journey taken by a girl who refuses to acknowledge a past tragedy. And while The Wanderer is very, very good, it loses by comparison with Walk Two Moons.

All-American toxicity is foregrounded in Matthew T Anderson's Burger Wuss (Walker pound;9.99), a tale of love lost and then obliterated.

Anthony takes a job at O'Dermott's burger restaurant, intent on revenge against fellow employee Turner, who stole his girlfriend and labelled him "wuss". His master plan exploits a long-term feud between O'Dermott's and Burger Queen workers, a down-and-out anarchist cook, and the arrival of Kermit O'Dermott himself to shoot an ad at the restaurant.

This book is cynical all the way down to the binding (the brilliant US teen flick, Heathers, comes to mind). These all-American kids check out toxic waste for fun, picnic in highrise car parks, recite all those food franchise facts that you'd really rather not know about animal cruelty, deforestation, salmonella and so on. There's a little flag-waving, but only by meat-brained jerks who drunkenly weep over an O'Dermott's that's "as American as freedom".

For those seeking ofter moments, there's romance a-plenty, sort of: "I could not believe that Turner knew the taste of her teeth. That was a taste like no other taste. The tang of thrilling plastic polymers... A little bitter. Like rare Oriental spice."

Burger Wuss is sharp and snappy and up-to-the-minute in its dilemmas (Anthony, alone in a deserted house, is unable to bring himself to slice a finger from a kidnapped fibreglass troll), and infinitely more satisfying than an O'Dermott's burger.

Robert Cormier takes us to an older (but not necessarily gentler) USA in his novel-in-verse, Frenchtown Summer, which now appears in paperback (Puffin pound;4.99). The 30 verse chapters tell of a single summer in Eugene's life, in the days when spine-chilling thrills were sought in the local graveyard rather than in front of the television set, and ice was delivered on a horse-drawn cart.

In wistful imagery, Cormier details the small pleasures, the social demands and the deaths that Eugene tries to forget and, most centrally, his feelings for his distant father: "My mother was vibrant, a wind chime, but my father was a silhouette, as if obscured by a light shining behind him. He was closer to me waving from the street than nearby in the tenement or walking beside me."

Perhaps the poetry is sometimes a mite prosaic, and perhaps too many chapters close with a snappy punchline. But the poignancy of Cormier's metaphor rewards the lingering eye, and draws the reader back into Frenchtown Summer for a second or third sitting.

Back in the UK, Stephanie R Johnson's debut novel In Black and White (Oxford, pound;5.99) portrays racism and empty teenage relationships in the battered housing estates of east London. Some would label this "gritty", I'd call it "shrug-of-the-shoulders realism"; this, says the novel, is just the way things are.

Protagonist Stephanie loves her London (but not her mum, her boyfriend and whoever beat up Shahid from downstairs),and the author seems to aswell. Sense of place and community are very well drawn, andif at times plot and character fail to convince, this can be forgiven in the broader context of an adventurous and moving first novel.

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