Little Moments of Vileness: “Grow Up” by Ben Brooks, Reviewed

Grow Up
by Ben Brooks
Penguin, 272 p.

The high school story is an odd thing. Most of the ones I think of come from movies—whether it be Project X, Can’t Hardly Wait, American Pie, or Sixteen Candles, and the billion beyond those. What are constant are the clear societal lines—who’s in and who’s out. In those stories, there’s usually at least one sympathetic character that we hope succeeds through whatever antics fall their way. But Brooks refuses to play that way. Instead, he takes a direct attack with a vicious, selfish young male.

In most cases, the reader feels some sympathy for such a brash protagonist, even if it is chiding at their naïveté. But I never got that feeling with Brooks’ main character, Jasper Wolf, a high school student (or the British equivalent) who is just trying to pass his exams, take drugs, have sex, and chill with friends. Jasper is sweetly cold-hearted, not in a crime noir type way, but like a conniving reality TV star. From peeing in friends’ shoes to killing cats to thinking his stepfather is a murderer to possibly drug-raping young girls, Jasper never has any repercussions for his actions.

But that Jasper was a bad guy never occurred to me until I started writing this review. Because Jasper’s evilness would never have a grand setup or even be part of a larger plot ideation, they just happened, in very short punctuated paragraphs that I had to read over a few times just to make sure I wasn’t missing something. And I never knew when it was coming, so it was these little moments of vileness that really pulled it along.

I’m always horrible at style comparisons, but I wouldn’t think Carver would be too far off, with its driven dialogue and unruly characters.

In this 3 AM interview, Brooks discusses how a lot of people think the book is funny. I honestly hadn’t thought of it that way, yet, maybe amusing, but I guess it seemed more depressing to me than anything. Confusion marred most of Jasper’s actions, but I guess characters doing sincere things and possibly humorous things that the audience themselves wouldn’t participate in is most of comedy.

Brooks has left me with a bit of quandary. I couldn’t stop reading Grow Up. It is an enjoyable book with a character that I didn’t appreciate or admire and sometimes loathed. But maybe Brooks is showing what all people 16-21 do: debase and conquer.

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