Finley is the only white kid on his basketball team. He's not the tallest, or the most talented, but he is the hardest-working player, and that has earned him his position as starting point guard. That hard work might just one day propel him out of his crime-infested ruin of a hometown.
So is Boy21 a sports novel? Not exactly.
Finley has played and trained - obsessively, single-mindedly - since he was ten years old, when something bad happened to his family and he found that shooting 500 free throws in a row allowed him to not think about it.
Is Boy21 a coming-to-grips-with-crisis novel? Not exactly that either.
Finley has time for only one thing in his life besides ball, and that's his girlfriend, best friend, and only friend, Erin. She is beautiful and the star of the girls' team and has a lot of patience. She gets along with Finley's drunk grandfather, his sorrowful father, and she loves Finley, even though he speaks rarely and breaks up with her every basketball season.
So it's a young love novel? Ok I know I'm getting annoying with this - I'll stop.
One night, Finley's coach shows up and asks him a favor. There's this kid Russell, an affluent basketball star from California, who is going through a rough patch and will be staying with his grandparents, going to Finley's school. Will Finley attach himself to this kid and make sure he's ok?
Finley agrees, because he is a team player and Coach is his coach. He meets Russ, who as it turns out, would prefer to be called Boy21. Boy21 declares that he is a "prototype" sent from outer space to study human emotions. Finley is a bit boggled by this, but, due to his rather passive nature and loyalty to Coach, he begins to spend a lot of time with Boy21. Boy21 watches while Finley and Erin train, visits Finley on his roof to stargaze, and, when school starts, is in all the same classes with Finley.
There's a lot going on here, underneath the quiet and the sound of basketballs bouncing. There's black Boy21 and white Finley, rich boy and poor boy, damaged young man retreating from the world behind a veil of stars and damaged young man retreating from the world behind a screen of silence. There's the fact that Boy21 is a supremely talented point guard who wears number 21, and Finley is a hard-working but not innately talented point guard who wears number 21. Coach wants Russell to play, and Finley knows it would be best for the team, but would it be best for Russ? And could Finley give up his starting position, as he surely would if Russ joined the team?
The evolution of their friendship - Russell's gradual emergence from the cocoon of Boy21, and then Finley's retreat after he loses his starting position - makes for a heartbreaking, engrossing read. The teenagers are surrounded by adults with complexities of their own. It's my hope that throwing sports into this mix will allow more young men to find themselves reading Boy21, because there aren't that many books about friendship between teen boys out there.
AHEM. HOWEVER. As you may have noticed, there is an elephant in the room that I am not mentioning. What happened to Russell's parents? What happened to Finley's family? How come Finley falls apart if he has Erin to lean on?
The answer to 2 of those 3 questions can be summed up in two words: Irish Mob. Irish Mob? Is there even such a thing? And what's it doing in this nuanced, understated novel? The end of the book is laced with slightly improbable, sensational plot developments, making it read an awful lot like what I think of as screenplay-bait. Matthew Quick may have developed some feel for this, as his first novel, The Silver Linings Playbook, is now a movie starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert DeNiro.
On the other hand, plot insertions like THE IRISH MOB also make a book more palatable for teens, and that may be what the author had in mind. But overall, I came away feeling like Matthew Quick had written a gem of a book, but had doubts about its marketability and so jazzed it up a little. He may have helped me with a new motto - When in doubt, bring out The Irish Mob!
Also reviewed by Doret at The Happy Nappy Bookseller.
And by Matt de la Peña, who knows about ball, for the New York m-f-in' Times!
Here's a trailer for the book: