The age of angst
‘Black Swan Green’ profiles puberty with grace and humor

by Joe Foster

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. Random House 2006. 294 Pages.

Thirteen. What a really crappy age that is. You have no idea who you are, but everyone around you seems to, and they’re a helluva lot better at it than you are. As a guy, you’re a cranky, hormone vat, slouching toward another day of humiliation learning how to square dance in gym, possibly having to partner up with that Benji kid, who looks like he combs his hair with a pork chop, because for some reason there aren’t enough girls to go around, which is kind of a relief, but now literally everyone, including that chump of a teacher, is cracking jokes about you and Benji having a litter of zit-babies. Meanwhile, social status is set in some strange inverse equation: the more likely you are to utterly fail in life, the more popular you are. Smart kids are losers while illiterate pre-pubescent Don Juans are the kings of the world. It really feels like those few years between puberty and a driver’s license are the worst. Ever.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell is about that kid,

the one all us guys were, and it is done with such humor and candor and poetry that I really couldn’t put it down. The main character, Jason Taylor, is as extraordinary an ordinary kid as I’ve ever read. He struggles constantly with who he is and where he fits. He’s riding right on the cusp between being seen as tolerably cool or as a pathetic loser. He’s an incredibly smart kid, which works to his disadvantage. He also has a socially debilitating stammer. We see everything from his perspective, so we are able to see him thinking four or five words ahead, making sure that he doesn’t trigger his stammer with an “n” or an “s,” while gauging the correct word usage for the audience. An adult will appreciate a bigger word, but a kid will think he’s ridiculous if he doesn’t throw in some slang. He often tells a teacher the incorrect answer to a question in order to avoid triggering a block.

He’s also a published poet, which doesn’t help his situation either, or wouldn’t if anyone knew about it. This kid is the quiet, outwardly unremarkable recorder of the life of his small town. From the hysteria caused by some Gypsy folk camped in the woods outside of town, to the death of a local young enlisted man in the battle for the Falkland Islands (1982), Jason wades

through the trials of his own life while trying to make sense of the imperialism of his country and the bigotry of the adults around him. Jason’s descriptions and perspective are hilarious, and as one would expect from a precocious pubescent wannabe-hoodlum, he’s a sarcastic little shit, which is fun to watch when you’re on his side and not on the other side getting hassled by that kid outside Liquor World that wants a Bud or else, brah. He’s constantly getting into trouble with his parents when he’s mouthing off, but he watches them bust each other’s chops so savagely it looks like Rocky in the meat packing plant – that is, if Rocky used withering words and passive aggressive behavior instead of his Italian fists of fury.

Black Swan Green was selected as one of the Top 10 Best Books of the Year by a number of different publications, including Time and the Rocky Mountain News. Mitchell himself has been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize twice now, once for his last book, Cloud Atlas, which was not quite as good this latest one, methinks. He’s considered England’s modern day Salinger, for what that’s worth. He really did such a fascinating job of getting inside the head of a young teen-ager that I could feel all those old insecurities come rushing back as I read Jason’s story, which really wasn’t as upsetting as it sounds. Maybe after reading Black Swan Green you’ll gain some perspective, and next time that kid on the skateboard threatens to kick your ass, you can pat him on the head and tell him you understand what he’s feeling. •

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