I’ve been a fan of Michael Rubens since my friend Ruby first recommended The Sheriff of Yrnameer four years ago. His first book was a complete win for me – a hilarious space opera that I recommended to all my sci-fi/fantasy loving friends – that I now keep on tap for waiting in doctor’s offices or at the mechanic’s when I need a mental boost.
His second book, on the other hand, a YA novel called Sons of the 613, put me through the emotional wringer. Rubens has a gift for humor, but like most comedians, he is deeply in touch with the raw underbelly of the human experience. Both Sons of the 613 and The Bad Decisions Playlist flirt with laughter, but in the spirit of truthful YA, are grounded in disaster and pain.
This makes sense to me. Adolescence is a shit show, and anyone who claims otherwise just doesn’t remember how hard it is to have everything shaken up and shaken hard all at once. I say this as a person who was well-adjusted, a successful student, close to my parents, and blessed with wonderful friends – I had so much, and yet I remember so much pain. I lost friends to illness and car accidents. I was treated horribly by boys who had seemed so kind. I watched in terrified silence while girls all around me starved and purged and did anything and everything possible to make themselves fit in. I still remember sitting in my psych class one morning and seeing my friend come in late, her head completely shorn of her beautiful black curls – she had spent an hour cutting them off with safety scissors in the bathroom at 7am for reasons too personal to share, even all these years later.
High school is a gauntlet. There’s no free pass. There’s no person pretty enough or popular enough to escape the human condition. And Rubens’ Playlist recognizes that. His protagonist is a stoner with an abundance of talent and a bad attitude – honestly, I hated him for about ninety percent of the book. I kept flashing back to my experience reading The Catcher and the Rye in high school, and how I wanted to punt Holden Caulfield for being such a whiny, narcissistic jerk. I didn’t understand then how deeply troubled and unhappy Caulfield was, or how his perception of the world could be the same as many of my classmates, because for me, adults had always been safe, helpful. For all the pain I felt, I always had the protection of a family who loved and supported me.
I’m not seventeen anymore. I met too many people in college who hurt me and themselves because they hadn’t received the care they needed for mental illness, for abuse they’d suffered, for wounds left too long untended. Then I spent too many years teaching and working with both young children and teenagers not to have seen a whole spectrum of caregiver behavior that floored me with its apathy, ignorance, and anger. I’ve witnessed too much suffering now not to know how or why some teenagers choose to numb themselves with drugs, alcohol, casual sex.
Austin Methune is an ordinary teenager. He’s hurting, he’s lonely and a little lost. He’s struggling with his relationship with his mother, and he doesn’t see the big picture. He cares more about impressing girls than he does just about anything else, and although much of this book is a love story, the part of Austin’s journey that was most powerful to me was his development of empathy and his ability to overcome his own buffoonish self-interest to become a good friend.
I like love stories, but I love friendship. People relying on others, trusting them, becoming vulnerable and allowing them to witness it? That is a love worthy of adolescence. That is a love that is fierce and bright and true. Learning that there’s more to friendship than just showing up to smoke weed and talk about girls is a story worth telling because being a kid is hard, and being a teenager is basically impossible. Friends are the lifeline. They show up for the hard stuff, and they are family if the whole blood relations thing doesn’t pan out.
Rubens gets that. He understands how complicated it is to be a teenage boy – as evidenced in his last two books – and instead of running from that, or sugarcoating it, he embraces it. He says, “It’s ok. I know this is messy, and that you might be a little bit of an asshole, but you’re still loved. Your story is important, and your voice should be heard.”