of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Rising Star - Michael Simmons
"Still, I had to go home. You always have to go home eventually. Sad, but true." Those are the words of Evan Macalister, protagonist and narrator of Michael Simmons' Finding Lubchenko, but he might be speaking for all of Simmons' protagonists, since every one struggles with ambivalence about home and what it contains, exploring the issues in a collection of novels with varied aims and tones and narrative voices that vary from sincere to guarded, flip to earnest, but that remain always compelling.
What's more, he adds to the challenge by relying on characters who fall short of likability. In his debut novel, Pool Boy, Simmons created a memorable protagonist and narrator in Brett Gerson, a smug and entitled teen whose home crumbled with Brett's dad's trip to jail for white-collar crime. In real life, the Bretts of this world can be hard to sympathize with, but literature offers a chance for more control and more judicious exposure of vulnerability, and Simmons masterfully allows Brett's awkward compassion for his sister, awareness of the pain he causes his mother, and eventual closeness to the old man who finds a job with to balance his smugness without eradicating his fundamental character and thus his believability. Proving that smug wiseasses were a bit of a specialty, Simmons featured another one in Evan Macalister, the narrator of Finding Lubchenko and The Rise of Lubchenko. Evan's entitled but he's not privileged, since his wealthy father keeps his son in austerity for the good of his character. Evan is therefore forced, or so he feels, to deal in stolen computers in order to finance the lifestyle he desires, when he's not "spend[ing] my conscious life trying to humiliate, scandalize, and disgrace my father." Evan even manages to save his father from a prison term in the first book and murder in the second without ever really endangering his reputation as a self-interested layabout.. In Vandal, it's not the narrator, Will, but his older brother, Jason, who's the unsympathetic one; Jason isn't just smug, he's unpredictable and dangerous, tormenting Will, committing stupid crimes, and setting a family tragedy in motion, but through Will's eyes we can see the pain and regret that makes Jason a touching figure even in his destructiveness.
There's no real redemption of Jason, no massive turnaround, even after he nearly kills his and Will's beloved little sister. The change here, typical in Simmons' works, is an alteration in viewpoint rather than a personal transformation, and it's about finding a different way to look at what is: a complicated situation that inspires mixed emotions. Torn between rage at his brother and pity for his brother's own guilt and grief, Will realizes that he has to let go of his expectations for a change in the situation and face the fact that this is the brother he will always have. Pool Boy's Brett doesn't betray his rage, legitimate and otherwise, by softening into movie-style forgiveness of the father who destroyed his home; instead he concludes by saying, "I still hate Dad for blowing everything and losing the house and the pool. That's a fact. But maybe I hate him in a different way than I thought . . . . I don't hate everything about him." Evan Macalister finally has a realization about what he gets from his stern dad: "I think the best you can hope for with my dad is a few moments of connection. My dad had limitations--he had a limited way of dealing with the world and with me. But in some ways, despite the obvious restraint, those few moments of connection suddenly seemed like a lot to me. They seemed like a lot."
As victories go, these may seem small, but they're all the more compelling for their realism--big rapprochements aren't the stuff of life, small realizations are. This is especially true for the kind of guys that Simmons features--teenaged boys, some of them latter-day Holden Caulfields who've opted for disaffection rather than depression, aware of being essentially lucky yet saddled with the family they've got and wishing things were different in a way they'll never be. That's a hard crew to write about, but Simmons gives them unforgettable voices.
óDeborah Stevenson, Editor