Here’s the executive summary of this post: “Scrawl” reveals the inner life of a junior high school bully, a huge, violent, lower class, shambling boy named Tod Munn who is secretly brilliant but plays being an oaf to conceal his intelligence and retain his hidden-in-plain-sight status in the complex social economy of his school. We have so many books about the inner lives of girls or super-powered boys or just good-looking, well-intentioned kids who wind up in bad situations that it’s refreshing to read a novel that plumbs the personality of somebody who is trapped and has given up on himself and everyone around him. Shulman writes beautifully and keeps the book from turning into an ABC After School Special (they don’t even make those anymore, do they?) exercise in sentimentality. This is a terrific read for anybody, particularly if you like Young Adult (YA) fiction, from a small press with a small marketing budget. You’re only likely to hear about it by word of mouth, and my mouth is telling you to go buy it on Amazon or order it from your local bookstore.
The longer version: If you’re a Calvin & Hobbes fan like I am, then you might share my mental picture of Tod, which is Moe the elementary school bully.
A few years older and infinitely smarter than Moe, Tod lives with his mom, a seamstress at a down market dry cleaner, and his stepfather Dick, a gardener, who thinks as little of Tod as he has to say to him, which is mostly “keep it down in there.” Tod’s dad walked out of his life when he was a kid, leaving behind only an apology letter that Tod hides in a suitcase under his bed. Poor, sleeping in an under-heated room in a rough-Manhattan-neighborhood apartment with paper thin walls and so little food that he eats both breakfast and lunch at the school cafeteria, Tod is a loser and knows it. He has two companions — not exactly friends, so he calls them his “droogs” — named Rob and Rex, as well as a younger friend who he looks after on the sly named Bernie. Just about everybody is taken in by Tod’s tough guy persona — even the teachers who can’t reconcile his appearance and manner with his high grades — with the possible exception of Stu, a classmate of Tod’s who is blind.
The engine for the novel: Tod is in detention, having been caught doing something we don’t learn about until later and sentenced to a month with Mrs. Woodrow, the school guidance counselor, who makes him keep a journal after school every day while Rex and Rod, Tod’s co-conspirators, clean the school grounds in the freezing cold as their punishment. Being forced to write uncorks something in Tod, and despite his desire to remain invisible he finds himself describing the school, his home, his life and his lack of options all in arresting detail. From time to time, Mrs. Woodrow writes back to Tod, and it feels like the voice of God when that adult voice writing in italics interjects. As his perspective shifts due to his journaling, Tod’s school and home life also begin to open up, although there are no scholarships to private school for this kid.
Shulman writes first person in Tod’s voice, and for the literary-critically minded of you the book is an exercise is “the skaz,” a Russian Formalist term that describes when a tale is told convincingly and unerringly from a character’s unusual perspective. The most famous American example of the skaz is Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.” Just about the only challenge of reading this delightful book is reconciling Tod’s appearance with his vocabulary and intelligence, and that’s a neat trick on Shulman’s part since we only have Tod’s own narrative to convince us of his appearance.
Here’s the opening paragraph from “Scrawl”:
Think about a pair of glasses for a second. You see them every day but you really don’t think about them, I bet. They’re just glass and metal, or glass and plastic. Little pieces of glass stuck on your face that mean everything. Maybe they mean you’re smart. Maybe they mean you’re rich. But definitely they mean you can’t see without them. Grind the glass this way, put in a slight curve, and you can see far. Change that curve a hair, just a tiny, minuscule difference, and you can see near. Grab the two lenses between your big hands and twist your wrist — just snap the part over the nose — now you can’t see anything for the rest of the day. That’s how it went for fat Ricardo Manzana.
What I like so much about that paragraph is that it starts with a typical writerly observation and then stomps right into Tod’s hulk persona. Shulman stops the reader from seeing through the lenses and makes us feel with Tod’s hands. That’s a neat trick.
Most teenagers feel isolated, misunderstood and powerless. The few that don’t are those kids who tragically peak in high school and get to be disappointed with the next sixty or eighty years of life. Tod Munn is isolated, misunderstood and — despite his physical strength and intelligence– powerless. His story is well worth reading.
Personal Note: I met Mark Shulman on my last trip to New York, but despite spending all of Halloween together on a trick-or-treating playdate with our families he somehow never mentioned that his novel had been published just the previous month. That’s the kind of guy he is, which shocked this Los Angeleno who grew up with every waiter having a screenplay peeking out of his apron. In fact, it wasn’t until a second Shulman visit when the truth came out, and Mark told Kathi, my wife about “Scrawl,” whereupon she happily bought a copy at The Strand. Kathi read it first, and I picked it up a few days ago. My impetus for reading the book was personal, but I forgot that I know Mark within a few pages of the start because I was hooked– so hooked that I woke up at 4:00am today to finish the book and then marched right to my home office to write this.
You’ll like it too.