Saturday, February 10

An Abundance of Katherines

by John Green
Dutton 2006

So I finally caved and read it. My reasons for not reading it for so long were irrational. It's the math. I wasn't born with the math gene and anything even remotely smacking of math kindles rocket fuel in my stomach and makes my adenoids itch.

Yes, I know the math isn't relevant to appreciating the story, no matter how accurate.

I'm going to be up front about this and admit it's going to take some easing into in order to find the groove for this review. And, honestly, what's holding me down is that in thinking about this book, as a reader and a writer and as someone who occasionally writes reviews, I can't help feeling that books like this require an entirely different approach to discussion. I'm in the shower thinking What this book really needs is a new kind of criticism, the likes of which we haven't seen since Lester Bangs was pounding down NyQuil and frothing about the carpet.

As a further prefatory note there were moments when I wasn't sure about the audience for this book. Is it home schooled prodigies looking for a window into (or out of) their self-torment? Are there sixteen year olds out there who aren't addicted to social websites on the internet, who are intelligent and not at all nerdy, who not only still read but can enjoy the plight of the prodigy and his best friend on a road trip to nowheresville so they can do a little navel gazing before heading off to college? And can they laugh at all the right places without malice? I'd like to think they're out there, I really would, but just how big is that army?

The mind drifts, images of hyper-literate Ronin holed up in boho coffeehouses reading An Abundance of Katherines at a single sitting fills my head. I see seniors, their personal essays nailed, their college apps already in the mail, pausing to reminisce lightly over foolish pranks and late summer nights in local make-out sanctuaries, the burn of long-since renounced fast food burning the back of their throat, coughing and chuckling at the same time.

No, wait, those aren't teens, those are twenty- and thirtysomething hipsters and artsters, the incommunicognoscenti that drift among the sudoku-mad salarymen and women on public transit, peering into the windows of their youth with grins as wry as their martinis. And in the corner, standing alone with closed eyes and humming to himself is Colin Singleton, child prodigy, anagramming the title of his book:

Ken refuted a cabana nosh-in

Unfreshen a cabana to kin, Ed

Ed frees a cabana to inn hunk

Why can't he get away from the cabana? Could a cabana hold the key to happiness? And who, exactly are Ed and Ken, and so on.

Trolling the barren vistas of Tennessee, Colin and his best bud Hassan (introducing himself by saying "I am not a terrorist", and the people laugh) are out on that great post-high school metaphor, the road trip in a vehicle called the Hearse. The roadside lure of the final resting place of Franz Ferdinand leads Colin and Not-a-Terrorist like a divining rod to Gutshot, a company town that manufactures tampon strings.

Yeah, the book's funny like that.

Improbably fun they hit it off well with the backwoods locals, in particular a reluctant likely-prodigy-in-hiding named Lindsey. They pick up a job locally recording oral histories in advance of the town's demise and crash with Lindsey while they sort through their issues. Colin in particular is haunted with understanding why he keeps getting dumped by all the Katherine's he's dated going so far as to develop a mathematical theorem dedicated to determining the length of a relationship. Silly boy! The reason they don't work out is because he keeps dating women named Katherine! Ah, but that's too easy, and would make for a much shorter book.

I tied that once. Or twice. Dating Katherine's, that is. They didn't have much in common beside their name. And the fact that they both dumped me for other guys. And they lied to me about their ages (like I cared). It only took me two, but I got off the ride before I hurled. Totally true.

Meanwhile, back in the sticks, Hassan-the-Not-a-Terrorist consumes Hardee's Monsterthick Burgers by the gross (1420 calories each) and serves as another of literature's great fat sidekicks, part Hotei, part Pulcinella. When he isn't eating or mooning over Judge Judy on television Hass (I like to think of him shaped like the avocado, but with man tits) continues to put off his college education in the mistaken belief that by not doing something with his life he is doing something quite profound. And he gets the local hottie! That is until she relinquishes her opportunity at his Monsterthick-fed Thunderstick over a tryst in the cemetery.

Over my dead body!
Franz Ferdinand might call out from the great beyond. And he'd be right.

In the end, as the smog of Gutshot sinks heavily into the rear view mirror, Colin finally breaks the cycle, forsakes his Katherine Wheel, and picks up a extra passenger on his way out of Gutshot and into Whatever is Next.

It's a crappy summary, but accurate where it counts. If it counts at all.

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