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Page history last edited by RichiesPicks 11 years, 1 month ago

16 May 2004 BUCKING THE SARGE by Christopher Paul Curtis, Random House/Wendy Lamb Books, September 2004, ISBN: 0-385-32307-7; ISBN Library: 0-385-0159-3


The nation's fifth and sixth grade teachers will return to school in September just in time to discover that Christopher Paul Curtis has forsaken them. BUCKING THE SARGE is not a book that they will be reading aloud to their students in the same way that thousands of them have been reading THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM, 1963 and BUD NOT BUDDY.


But those of us who spend most of our time in the somewhat-older, YA world are gonna be doing some kind of badass NFL-style victory dance for having lured Christopher over to our side of the 'hood with his latest tale full of one-of-a-kind characters and occasional laugh-till-the-snot-and tears-pour-out situations.


"I don't mean to say my boy is obsessed, but Sparky blames all our problems on the fact that we live in Flint. Yeah, I'm looking to get out someday myself, but this is one of those things that me and Sparky don't think alike on. But that's not his fault. My mind is trained in a different way than his.

"I like to look at everything philosophically, and he doesn't. I've known since I was about six that thinking that way will get you what you need in life so I've been studying philosophical junk since then.

"It gets a laugh every time I tell someone but by the time I'm twenty-one I plan on being America's best-known, best-loved, best-paid philosopher. And that's a job that there's gotta be a big demand for 'cause how many full-time, professional American philosophers can you think of?

"I rest my case."


Luther T. Farrell is a skinny, six-foot-four student at Whittier Middle School. He is actually fifteen, even though his driver's license says eighteen. Sparky is his best friend and foil. Luther is a success with science fair projects but less so with love (as evidenced by the well-aged condom in his wallet that he's named Chauncey). He quietly longs for romance with Shayla, the pretty and smart undertaker's daughter whom he's known forever. He's also big on making lists.


Luther's mother, a.k.a. The Sarge, has him stretched between school and work. The Sarge is the loan-sharking, slum-lording, government reimbursement-sucking, ever-scamming operator of numerous sub-par establishments, including the Happy Neighbor Group Home for Men, where she's had Luther living with, caring for, and chauffeuring around the clients since he was thirteen:


"I opened the door and Mr. Foster was the first to get in. He's the leader of the pack. Before he got sick he was the top dog with some insurance company. Now he spends his days dogging the rest of the crew, watching television and reminding me how bad my life is.

"He said, 'Gentlemen, good to see you both.' We had finally got his medications tuned so that he didn't have the big mood swings. Mr. Baker was next. He's the official Happy Neighbor Group Home for Men grumpy old man, nicotine addict and pyromaniac. Medications don't do a thing to him.

"He'd been holding his breath since I pulled up and now that he was in he let out a lungful of cigarette smoke all over me...

"Mr. Keller has to be kept loaded up on a ton of meds, it's the only way we can keep him from going off on folks. He's so far out of it that Mr. Foster calls him Dial Tone."


For a reasonably easy and often-funny read, BUCKING THE SARGE is also riddled with complexities and darkness. The Sarge and Darnell Dixon ("the Sarge's go-to guy and my boss and one of Flint's leading psychopath nut jobs") are a matched set of ticking time bombs. The Sarge's consistently despicable and cruel treatment of society's most vulnerable groups--children, the poor, the elderly--is topped off by the pair's gross brutality during their eviction of a family that includes one of Luther's classmates.


When, at one point, Luther "[gets] up enough nerve to tell her that I was thinking about quitting working at the home and was probably gonna get a job at Micky D's," she repeats the jaw-dropping story of how she got to where she is today. The moral of that bitter recollection is that she has learned from the wealthy, the politicians, and the corporations to milk "any- and everything that moves. If it's got nipples, I'm going to milk it." To recognize this cold, hard, violent woman as a mimic and parody of the "winners" in the American economic system of the haves and the have-nots is to understand this subtle yet scathing indictment of the system.


Luther, himself, tells us that he's learned philosophically to see things from both sides. "What's important is that you keep your mind wide open and try to understand what's going on from a lot of different angles. That's what I try to remember every time I talk to the Sarge or think about her or try to understand why she is the way she is." But, in either case, we see a dangerous woman who--whether full of great advice or not--is clearly not in a space to be what we'd consider to be a loving mother.


And dark humor is certainly found in the dangerous extremes to which Luther's buddy, Sparky, is willing to go in order to try and escape Flint. Those vivid images make us cringe as we laugh (or is it laugh as we cringe).


"Sparky took three steps back, then fell in a pile limp as a towel you just dried off with after a shower. It seemed like all of his bones had been Jell-O-fied."


There are a wealth of contemporary coming of age tales, but in the hands of Christopher Paul Curtis it's a whole new story.


"I've learned that if you don't write down what you're thinking about, no matter how amazing it is you'll forget it. I don't like to brag, but I know I've had a couple of ideas that were so great and shocking that they'd've won the Nobel Peace Prize of Philosophy. The only problem was I didn't write them down and by the time I got home or got out of the shower they were long gone."


Even more so than with Kenny or Bud, we're left at the finish wondering about the future of this goodhearted kid we've come to love. You can be damned sure that I'll be keeping a lookout for America's great new, best-loved, professional philosopher.


Richie Partington




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