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

15 May 2008 THE LAST EXIT TO NORMAL by Michael Harmon, Knopf, March 2008, 273p., ISBN: 0-375-84098-2; Libr. ISBN: 0-375-94098-7


"Miss Mae was like an old record, all scratchy and rough but still functional. She'd skin you, strap you, eat your liver, take you by the ears and beat some sense into your head. I'd been hit with a wooden spoon more times last week than I liked to think about, and even though the thought of getting slapped in the face burned hot, there was something about her that I sort of liked. She was a rebel herself."


Three years ago punk skater and city boy Ben Campbell had his life turned upside down when his father came home, came out, and Ben's mother reacted to the news by promptly moving out of their lives. Ben has since spent significant time rebelling. Fortunately, he's survived in one piece, but the last straw -- as far as his two dads were concerned -- was a car crash that followed a police chase.


Ben's dad and "momdad," Edward, have now decided to move with Ben from Spokane, Washington to the house, the mother (Miss Mae), and the little Montana community that Edward had left behind twenty years previously:


"Rough Butte, population four hundred and sixty-three not counting several dozen chickens roaming the streets, had a stagnant creek running through it, a bunch of small stores, and huge oak and maple trees growing everywhere. A town-square park with a wishing well and a bridge over the creek sat in the middle of everything.

"If I were one to admire quaint small-town life, with its clean streets, old-fashioned sidewalk lampposts and all the trimmings, Rough Butte might be cool, but I'm not one to appreciate anything without a grind rail on it. I couldn't find a decent one in the whole rotten place. But I did find the sheriff. Actually, he found me."


While Edward comes face-to-face with the community his mother sent him away from all those years ago (for his own good), Ben is getting his own dose of Miss Mae and the colorful assemblage of characters who hail from Rough Butte. This cast includes fellow teen, Kimberly Johan -- for whom Ben falls at first sight -- as well as Miss Mae's horrific next-door neighbor Norman Hinks, and Hinks' troubled and chronically-abused young son, Billy:


"Billy straightened, a broken brick in his hand, his sweaty face contorted. I couldn't tell if there were tears in his eyes or if it was just sweat. '"Sorry' don't cut it around here, faggot. My dad's right. You prob'ly just want to put it in me, like he says.'

"I'd dealt with stuff before, but never in my face like this. 'Whoa. Not even, man. And your dad is an asshole for even saying it.'

"Billy's eyes swept to the cat slinking along the fence. He walked a few steps to the back door, opened it, then reached inside. He brought out a rifle.

"My stomach fell to my feet, images of being blown away by a ten-year-old boy flashing through my head.

"'Hey, man, put that away.'

"He looked at me like I was the biggest dork in the world, levered a round into the rifle, took aim, and shot the cat. It jumped, then crumpled to the ground. The shot echoed, but it wasn't that loud. Not like I expected it to be."


As Ben gradually -- for better or for worse -- becomes a part of his new community, he struggles to maintain a relationship with his father, to begin one with Kimberly, and to devise a way to help Billy.


I was not surprised to learn from an article posted on the author's website that Harmon has been mentored by Chris Crutcher. Akin to a 21st Century band dropping musical hints of their Sixties or Eighties influences while performing, THE LAST EXIT TO NORMAL often riffs like old-school Crutcher. This means LAST EXIT is a primo, straight-talking, oft-profane, and consistently fulfilling 100% genuine guy read that propelled me in short order from cover to cover.


"I smiled. 'See? Watch.' I flipped the board down on the porch and jumped down the stairs, landing it perfect.

"Her brow furrowed. 'Do that again.'


"'Don't you question me!' she barked, then gestured with a saggy arm for me to do it again. I did, landing it like I did the first time. She nodded, then shooed me away. 'Get on out of here, and stay out of trouble.'

"I nodded, skating down the walk. 'Bye.'

"She called to me, her firecracker voice snapping over the street: 'You be late for supper and I'll skin your behind!'"


Purchasing a copy or two of THE LAST EXIT TO NORMAL will be an excellent investment for those serving high school students.


Richie Partington, MLIS

Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com

Moderator, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/




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