05 May 2015

Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher

I picked up WHALE TALK by Chris Crutcher after reading an article on challenged books, and the disproportionate number of books with non-white narrators that got challenged. WHALE TALK was mentioned as an example, and I've been getting into swimming for fitness lately, so a book about underdogs forming a swim team seemed fun.

WHALE TALK's narrator, The Tao Jones (who goes by TJ, so he can spare himself repeatedly explaining his mother's hippie naming conventions), is white, Japanese, and African-American. His biological mother had a brief affair with a half-Japanese, half-black man, and when TJ was born, his mother's [white] partner discovered the affair and left. TJ's mother left as well, when TJ was only two, and he was raised by his adoptive mother and father.

TJ is fine with this now, though he went through pretty severe abandonment issues when he was a child, and he is self-aware enough (thanks to counseling) to know that it still affects his life and relationships in ways both large and small.

At TJ's high school, everything revolves around athletics. The Cutter High School letter jacket is a huge deal, with the most stringent conditions for earning and wearing them. When TJ comes across football players bullying Chris Coughlin for wearing his deceased brother's jacket—a violation of the "jacket code"—TJ determines to help make sure that Chris, and other marginalized kids like him, get letter jackets of their own.

There were times when my high school felt like this: like the athletes got all the funding, all the privilege, but thankfully they were never so fierce as the ones in WHALE TALK, and there were a few administrators at my high school who went out of their way to support things besides football.

To be honest, the setup almost sounds like some sort of feel-good movie. But Crutcher's writing, and WHALE TALK's setting, make it anything but.

WHALE TALK is set in a small town in Eastern Washington, where the population is overwhelmingly white—TJ is one of three people of color in his town—and, it seems, overwhelmingly messed up. It felt like half the people in the story were either victims or perpetrators of abuse: domestic, sexual, psychological, and often as not, all of the above.

I've never truly encountered abuse. I've been fortunate enough never to have been abused, and no one that I know has ever shared with me any abuses they've received. I hope there have been none. It was hard for me to wrap my brain around what makes a person like that. TJ has trouble, too, but his counselor, and his parents, try to help him understand—as best as anyone can. He doesn't like it, but he can't save people from themselves.

Aside from the dark setting, what made WHALE TALK most memorable were the characters. TJ casts a pretty wide net an ends up with some pretty different fish:

Dan Hole, the nerd; Tay-Roy Kibble, the body-builder; Simon DeLong, who's overweight; Jackie Craig, quiet and shy, who barely ever speaks; Andy Mott, angry and (we come to find out) physically disabled; and the aforementioned Chris Coughlin, who is developmentally disabled after being abused as a child (his mother's boyfriend covered his face in saran wrap to stop him from crying).

Each of these characters could have been sketches, or worse, caricatures. Instead, they all breathe with life of their own. TJ is uniquely aware that they all have their own wants and needs, and Crutcher portrays that skillfully. Perhaps no one is more eloquently depicted than Chris Coughlin. He's probably the most compassionately-written character with a mental disability that I've ever read. So often, characters like him seem to have some sort of magical quality to them: Tom Cullen from THE STAND comes to mind. Other times, they'll be held up as some sort of example of purity and innocence.

Chris Coughlin is never treated as anything but a real person. He brings out the ugliness in people, and he brings out the kindness in others; he's brave when he has to be and cowardly when he can be. He was not just one thing: he was beautifully complex, just like everyone else.

Of course, in a town filled with abusive racists, things get dark in WHALE TALK. Triumph mixes with heartache. The resolution was well-earned, and the denouement was nice and tender.

I really enjoyed WHALE TALK. The most valuable thing it gave me was an insight into racism and abuse that was pretty different from what I'd read before, especially on the racism front. There are lots of books dealing with the sort of overt, violent racism that so many people face, but the subtle, pervasive kind doesn't always get as much attention. In WHALE TALK, Crutcher manages to make it just as menacing as a lynch mob.

In a way, I'm glad WHALE TALK is challenged so often. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who goes out of my way to read challenged books.