Archive for March 25th, 2005

Have You Seen Me Lately?

March 25, 2005

I thought someone would notice, I thought someone would say something if I was missing. Can’t you see me? — Adam Duritz

A few years ago, my friend Joel dragged me and my friend Sean (a 6’6″ Australian–and that has nothing to do with this story–just providing detail) to a high school football game–guys night out and whatnot. We had no real affiliation with either school, other than knowing the defensive coordinator for one of the teams. I hadn’t been to any high school sport in several years (and I’ve not been to one since). As much as I like sports, I didn’t end up paying much attention to the game because the stories the men standing around the field were telling were so much more interesting. Rather than a play-by-play of the game actually being played, these men were talking about what play their coach would have called in the exact scenario taking place on the field at that self-same moment back in 1977 (or ’67 or ’57) when they were playing. These men were having the time of their lives, it seemed–doubling over laughing, leaning on each other to not completely fall into the mud because they were so incredibly hilarious (despite myself, I thought they were as funny as they did, maybe more so). A couple of them had been quarterbacks, a couple had been defensive players who loved to demonstrate to passersby the proper way to perform a tackle. I don’t know if these men had been popular in high school, if they married the homecoming queen (I’m hoping not, but assuming so). I don’t know how they were employed or if they were enjoying their life as much now as they did way back when. What I do know is that they loved high school. They were the ones Brian Adams sang about when, speaking of the teenage years, said: “those were the best days of my life.” (I would be unspeakably embarrassed to have just quoted Adams except that if you stay with me, in just a little bit I’ll use him to make a negative point.)

I think for a lot of us, the teenage years are something we’d rather forget. For some of us, we were awkward and shy and didn’t know why in hell the homecoming queen was going out with someone who was obviously going to carry a spit cup around with him for the majority of his life. Probably even sport a mustache at some point (and not the Tom Sellek-type mustache, mind you, which is oh-so dreamy). And then for some of us, the teenage years were miserable. We were the jokes. We were the ones who spent our nights wishing we were someone else, somewhere else, anywhere and anyone but where and who we were. Helpless and hopeless.

Amanda Davis’s Wonder When You’ll Miss Me is an indictment for those who made the jokes and a fantasy for those who were the jokes. Now, I know not all quarterbacks are jerks and just because you happened to enjoy being a teenager doesn’t make one evil, just because you hated being a teenager doesn’t make you a saint later in life. Those are stereotypes, and they are stereotypes that Davis begins with and eventually dispenses with in her novel.

We meet Faith Duckle as a skinny, quiet girl. She’s a young teenager. She talks to herself. She has no real friends at school. She is miserable. She has attempted suicide and spent several months in a psychiatric hospital. She has an eating disorder. She had been the fat girl just the year before. The running joke. She was such a good joke that ten (or was it eleven?) football players decided to rape her, to make the joke even funnier. One of them held her down while the others took turns. That’s when she tried to kill herself. That’s when she developed an eating disorder. That’s when she went away to the hospital.

She returns to school a year later thinking, hoping that her newly thin body would propel her into a different social group. It doesn’t. She tries going, uninvited even (what you might call crashing), to parties at the cool kids houses, but even with an unrecognizably different look, she is still not welcome. But Faith, bless her heart, wants so badly to be popular (which in her mind equals happy). She’s in absolute-baby-giraffe-legs love with one of the boys who raped her. She only knows who one of them was. She’d had a crush on him before the rape and maintained it after.

Faith eventually decides to enact revenge for the rape. It’s violent. It’s bloody. It hurts to read.

Then Faith leaves home and heads in search of a friend she met while working at a restaurant who is now traveling with a circus. Is there a better form of escapism than the circus, is what I’m itching to know. Faith, who had spent her high school years as either invisible or as a joke runs off and joins a group of people who intentionally disguise themselves, intentionally make themselves the joke, intentionally become invisible every week by disappearing from town.

I’m not sure if I was popular or not in high school. I went to a small school. Eight of the sixteen people in my graduating class had gone to school together since pre-school. Don’t get me wrong, there were “in” groups, and I played sports, and I hung out with the “in” crowd sometimes. I don’t know if I was popular simply because I don’t remember much at all about high school (other than the whole homecoming queen part–I mean, seriously, and ouch). I do know that I don’t want a do-over. If I ever relate to the Brian Adams song that some previous time was the best time of my life, well, (I’ve got nothing clever to finish this sentence, so) then I’ll probably like his music more. I’m not someone who loves every moment of life. We all have times and things and people we want to escape from, whether we’re part of the “in” crowd or not.

Maybe that’s why Davis’s novel is so appealing to me. It is set in the teenage years, but it is applicable for any stage of life. Davis gives Faith the power to change things. She doesn’t necessarily change things for the better, but she is no longer a joke. Faith takes control of her life, even if it is in the wrong direction. Faith isn’t a saint because she was unpopular, and there are some popular and beautiful people in this novel that are sweet and kind to Faith. So Faith has power. So what? Don’t we all? (Answer: No, in my opinion.) Regardless of the power Faith has and what she does with it, more intriguingly to me, Faith escapes. Becomes someone alto-friekin-gether different. What Faith discovers, however, is that there are social hierarchies everywhere. That doesn’t surprise you or me, but for a teenager, this is quite the discovery. The trapeze artists don’t associate with the animal caretakers, don’t even eat at the same time with them in the mess hall. The clowns don’t talk to the vendors, don’t even eat at the same time with them in the mess hall. Etc. Faith begins as an animal keeper. Scoops elephant poop up and puts it in a wheel barrel and finds a place to dispose of it. But despite her past, Faith still wants to be part of the “in” crowd. She wants to be a trapeze artist, an acrobat. She wants to be something other than what she is. The trapeze artists, though, don’t want her. Same as when she was in high school.

Nothing wrong with wanting to be something you are not, don’t get me wrong. I’d love to be a novelist or a surfer or the person who comes up with a way to make people stop using cliches (For the love of Pete, people, stop saying you are as full as a tick after every single Thanksgiving dinner, or that your niece is growing like a weed.). Wishing you were someone else is only one aspect of the novel. A random list of questions the novel raised for me: Does a person gain some sort of moral superiority just because they are the outcast, as we (I) sometimes like to believe (or are they justified if they decide to get revenge?)? Is a person evil just because he is Donald Trump? Is Donald Trump good because he is rich and popular? When we try escape, what are we escaping from, the world or ourselves?

Wonder When You’ll Miss Me is dark and funny and includes details of rapes and violence that most people’d rather not read but probably should. It holds us all responsible–the joke tellers and the jokes. It reminds us that we probably aren’t on the minds of others nearly as much as we think we are–Faith is gone for a year and keeps expecting to be caught for her crimes or, at least, you know, her mom would come a-looking. No matter how good a joke Faith was, or thought she was, she was forgetable, it would seem. That can be either a relief or very depressing, I guess, depending on if you want to be missed or how you want to be remembered. Faith is torn between wanting people to miss her and not wanting to be caught. She is torn between the guilt she feels for her violence and the pain she feels from being raped, being friendless, being a joke. There are no easy resolutions for Faith, and there is no easy resolution for this novel.

This is one of those books I’d wake up a little earlier in the mornings just to get to read a few extra pages before I had to go to the library and do the reading I’m supposed to do as a grad student. It’s that good. You get to meet a lot of fun circus people and travel around the country in a caravan and, through Faith, get to escape for just a little while–forget the bad things that have happened to you–and that you have done–and just play with elephants and watch acrobats.

Next week I’ll discuss Helen Dewitt’s novel The Last Samurai. It has nothing at all to do with the Tom Cruise movie, or Samurais since we’re on the subject of what it’s not about, so don’t get your hopes up about any of that.

Things I am currently reading: Perdido Street Station, by China Mielville (yes, I’m still reading it). A Good Man is Hard to Find, And Other Stories, by Flannery O’Connor (does it get better than O’Connor, please tell me). Theodore Rex, by Edmund Morris. The Last American Man, by Elizabeth Gilbert.