09 September 2014

Winger by Andrew Smith

Sweet mother of crap, how did I go this long without knowing about Andrew Smith? The first I heard of him was Grasshopper Jungle. But he may very well be my new favorite author. Grasshopper Jungle was great, but Winger was just amazing. It absolutely lived up to every bit of praise I heard.

Winger tells the story of Ryan Dean West, a 14-year-old junior at a private school for rich kids. He lives in the dorm for bad kids, because he’s too smart for his own good and has poor impulse control. He plays rugby - left wing - which is where is nickname Winger came from. He has a huge crush on his friend, Annie. But he’s a 14-year-old boy with the crazed sex drive to prove it.

Ryan Dean (he has two first names) feels like someone I’ve known all my life. I understand him so perfectly, which is kind of surprising to me, given how different he is from how I was at that age. I was introverted, shy, and medicated. Ryan Dean is bombastic, athletic, and can’t stop thinking about sex.

But he’s just as confused about growing up as I was. He’s just as uncomfortable in his own skin. I think that, more than anything, is a unifying experience of growing up. Not knowing who you are or who you’re supposed to be.

Winger had a brilliant cast of supporting characters: Ryan Dean’s friends from his old dorm, Seanie and JP; the aforementioned Annie; his roommate, Chas, the bully from the rugby team that no one likes, and his girlfriend, Megan, who has the hots for Ryan Dean; and Joey, the gay captain of the rugby team.

What moved me most about Winger was Ryan Dean’s honest internal monologue about Joey. He likes Joey as a friend, and isn’t afraid to get branded as gay for hanging out with Joey.

Well, not too worried, and he’s honest enough to admit being ashamed when he does think about that.

Ryan Dean is amazingly empathetic to Joey, starting a fight with football players twice his size when he thinks they’re picking on Joey, worrying about him being lonely, and, in general, treating him like a normal person. Which he is.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that both Winger and Grasshopper Jungle feature gay best friends of the main character. Ryan Dean shows readers a beautiful example of acceptance and friendship. I wish it had been around when I was growing up.

Beyond his friendship with Joey, though, Ryan Dean gave me hope. He makes mistakes - a ton of mistakes - throughout the book, but he never stops trying. He learns from his mistakes. He makes amends. And that, more than anything, is what makes him so brave to me.

It’s no spoiler to say that Winger takes a dark turn at the end. People talk about how heartbreaking its ending is. It’s absolutely true. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut.

Ryan Dean will stay with me for a long time. I got Winger from the library, but as soon as I finished reading it I ordered a copy from my local independent bookseller.