Twisted

By Laurie Halse Anderson

Viking. 269 pp. $16.99

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Reviewed by Katie Haegele


There are plenty of people who assume that young-adult books must be less substantive than their adult counterparts, or that they don't have anything all that important to say, or that they couldn't be sincerely funny in an acerbic, knowing, real kind of way.

Maybe they haven't read any books by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Anderson is the author of the best-seller Speak, about a girl raped at a high school party. She also wrote Prom, another best-seller, set in a Philly neighborhood that felt so real I half expected to bump into its characters at Wawa.

This time, Anderson has affixed her high-beam gaze to a very particular kind of suburban nightmare, and her vision is as sharp as ever. Set in housing developments filled with McMansions in Nowhere Specific, U.S.A., Twisted is the story of 17-year-old Tyler and his painful struggle to come into himself.

Tyler and his family are unhappy in a uniquely American way, and Anderson has created a tension-filled household so real it raises your hackles. You can practically hear the doors slamming, almost see the crazed look of anger on his dad's face after a frustrating day of work. Through Tyler's eyes we get a very clear view of what his life is like; take, for instance, his introduction to his mom:

"Meet my mother: pet photographer, cake baker, nice lady who smelled faintly of gin."

Oof.

When we meet Tyler, he's doing time by helping the janitors at his high school spread tar on the roof and toss around 50-pound bags of mulch. It's his punishment for committing the "Foul Deed" of slamming the side of the school with a rude (and unfortunately misspelled) graffiti message about the principal.

Tyler used to be a few growth spurts behind his classmates, which accounted in part for his general misery, but thanks to a summer of hard labor he's got "rippled muscles and enough testosterone to power a nuclear generator."

Some of that testosterone is funneled directly into a powerful crush on Bethany Milbury, an ultra-popular hottie who happens to be the daughter of his dad's boss and the twin sister of an evil creep named Chip - who has it in for Tyler. Since Tyler's persona at school hovers between guy-whom-no-one-notices and guy-who-is-potentially-scary, and because his dad kisses up to her dad in a revolting sort of way, Tyler figures he doesn't have a chance.

Also, he can't drive, since his parents took his license away when he got in trouble. His teachers, and almost all of his classmates, assume the worst about him.

His mom keeps retiring to her bedroom with "headaches," and his domineering, moody father signs him up for more AP classes than he can handle and all but calls him a loser when he asks to have his course load lowered to a non-superhuman level. Tyler feels so bad about himself that when a rival team defaces the football field and everyone assumes he did it, he's almost not sure at first whether or not he did.

Most troubling is the situation inside his head. When he lets us in a little closer, we learn that he has a worrisome escape fantasy: Visions of car crashes and big explosions dance in his head whenever the stress level gets too high, which is pretty much every day.

Poor Tyler isn't "twisted" at all - he feels frustrated and trapped, and Anderson really makes her readers feel the life-or-death urgency of his situation. About halfway through the book, I realized I'd been holding my breath.

As usual in novels, something happens that tests our hero's mettle, and he remembers that he's a good person despite what people think about him. And it's funny how one good thing can pick up momentum and snowball, just as bad things sometimes do. Tyler starts to figure out how to handle all the situations in his life, and he figures out that being a man isn't about physical strength or getting together with someone you have the hots for. Well, maybe it's a little bit about those things.

"I felt tall," he tells us, and you know he doesn't mean reaching-the-top-shelf tall. I loved this kid - loved his wit, his too-adult sadness, and his eventual triumph. This is as close to real as fictional characters ever get, and if you don't love him, too, well, is your name Chip Milbury or what?

Katie Haegele is a writer who lives in Montgomery County. Her e-mail address is katie@thelalatheory.com.