An unusually long review: Stand-Off

Because I like to keep my reviews brief, and because I can't do that when it comes to some writers, I let myself ramble and put those reviews here:


by Andrew Smith


I no longer believe that Andrew Smith intentionally breaks the rules of literature.  Instead, I think he just writes the books he wants to write, conventions be damned.


Either way, he continues to rewrite the definitions of 21st century Young Adult literature, and the world's readers (there's a reason he's translated into so many languages, you know?) are all the richer for it.


Case in point: Stand-Off, a sequel to Smith's magnificent, hilarious and heartbreaking tour-de-force, Winger.


Without giving too much away (because if ever there were a book you wanted to unfurl a chapter at a time, it's that one), Winger was a stunner of a novel--a seeming teen sex-and-humor genre piece at first, then subtly but increasingly insightful, occasionally maddening, realistically romantic, obsessively biological, then absolutely hilarious before finally being--well, what it really was all about in the first place, though you didn't realize it the first time you read it.  Winger was, in being a somewhat schizophrenic book, a perfect model of 21st century life.  It didn't try to be a single consistent narrative (let's not forget the intertextual comic panels and letters throughout), but a stirring example of indeterminacy, mutability, morality and accident.  It also left the reader, when its climactic scene occurs (or rather doesn't occur: it happened outside the narrative of the protagonist, Ryan Dean West) without the climax that English teachers like myself have been trained to teach students to identify in stories.  It left readers, to use a cliche that this time works, breathless.


Winger's ending also left the reader certain that, if any book didn't need a sequel--in fact, couldn't sustain a sequel--this would be it.


So, naturally, Andrew Smith produced this, Stand-Off, a sequel.  Ryan's Dean West returns with girlfriend Annie Altman, and pursuing their relationship might be the traditional, expected course of a sequel.  But what do you do with a relationship once you've achieved boy-gets-girl?  Lesser writers would indulge in misunderstandings, the required breakup and finally reunion.  Ho-hum.


Remarkably, Ryan Dean and Annie stay together as maturing young lovers--against all convention, expectation be damned--and for the rest of the book!  No, that’s not a spoiler, so that’s why I didn’t alert you.


But where's the drama in a reasonably successful relationship, right?  Lesser writers, again, wouldn't care, because once boy and girl find each other, it's either Happily Ever After or You Don't Understand Me.  No novel has ever had to endure actually showing two teenagers dealing with what life would otherwise tell us is a normal relationship.  But for Ryan Dean and Annie, life does go on after their eventful junior year of high school, just as it does in--dare I say it?-- real life.


So,  now it is senior year of high school at Pine Mountain High, and, since Andrew Smith continued to write about him, Ryan Dean is forced to continue living, learning and loving (I know, it sounds corny, but perhaps the hardest thing to learn is how to live once the best and worst things you can imagine have already happened to you).  How to make everyday life compelling in a novel, well, that's Smith's challenge with Stand-Off.


In his senior year, Ryan Dean is finally in the unique position of no longer being one of the youngest kids in the school (for newcomers, he had skipped two grades earlier in his education).  Being a fourth year player on the rugby team, however, he is now looked upon as a leader, so he has quickly jumped from being a new teenager who had to prove himself on every level to a team leader... in fact, captain.  And as a leader, he also must do what is best for the team, which means leaving his position as winger and taking on the role of Stand Off (don't worry, Smith explains it sufficiently). 


Also as a leader, and the only student at Pine Mountain HS who could possibly identify, he is forced to room with newcomer Sam Abernathy, a 12-year-old freshman.  That's right, Sam is the Ryan Dean of three years ago.  The difference between the two is, Sam has in Ryan Dean a role model that he, Ryan Dean, never had.


But Ryan Dean never asked to be team captain, or role model to a neurotic 12-year-old.  He'd been through a lot last year, and all he wanted to a little continuity and a smooth, easy senior year.  Like it or not, however, growing up means you can't easily blend into the background.


In Winger, we were introduced to a Ryan Dean we immediately felt sorry for (he had his head in a toilet bowl, after all), wanted to like, and even rooted for, but as an immature young teenager, he made some choices that frustrated us (and the delightfully limbed Joey Cosentino).  To some degree, because Joey liked Ryan Dean, and because he made some wonderful choices, too, we stood by Ryan Dean as he pursued Annie, and new friendships, and a sense of self that he himself didn’t despise.  By the end, Ryan Dean rewarded our faith in him, and he felt a little less like a loser.


That, too, presents a typical sequel dilemma.  We already appreciate Ryan Dean, so how can he earn our appreciation again?  Answer: throw him into a new role.  He perhaps earned our respect as a fourteen-year-old, but now he's a year older and presumably more than a year wiser.  He can't remain where he was.  We have new expectations of him, just as his rugby coach does, his friends and classmates do, and even Annie does.  Oh, yes, and Sam Abernathy, too.


The problem is, and if I've stated the problem before, it's because Ryan Dean restates it too:  he didn't ask for these expectations and responsibilities, and he certainly didn't ask for a claustrophobic prepubescent roommate to ruin any positive reputation he may have had coming into this year.  Quickly, he learns to resent young Sam, and spends much of his time abandoning the kid as Sam totes around after him in search of guidance.  The more Sam idolizes him, the more Ryan Dean resents Sam.  And THAT's how Ryan Dean returns to the role of protagonist we adore but are repeatedly frustrated by.  Once again, we return to repeatedly saying, "Why doesn't he..." And "Why can't he just..."  And of course, we answer ourself with, "He's not yet ready."  Ryan Dean is who he is, and will only become more than that when he becomes—well, more than that.


In Winger, Joey was there for him as father figure who taught him how to expect more from himself and how to act like a man.  In Stand-Off, Smith remarkably has the 12-year-old Sam, as a wide-eyed idealist, act as much as Ryan Dean’s teacher as his pupil.  Teenage life can be full of weighty melodrama, but Sam is a delightfully young kid who time and again steals the show with his extreme lack of sarcasm and irony.  He alone makes this an even-funnier-than-Winger sequel.  (By the way, it could never be as heartbreaking, so don’t expect it to be.)


Okay, so I know this has been more of an essay than a review, the kind of I thing you read after reading a book, to help identify why you liked it, rather than before it to get you to want to read it in the first place.  And I know it seems like the book concerns so many "lessons" that are "learned." But Ryan Dean’s story is, in fact, so much about growth and self-awareness.  Smith's talent--and frequently genius--is that a good review of Winger and/or Stand-Off would talk nothing of awareness and growth and maturity and still do a fine job of explaining the books.  Such a review would go something like this:


Ryan Dean West is back for his senior year at Pine Mountain, and this time he's paired with a 12-year-old neurotic roommate named Sam, who needs his guidance as much as Ryan Dean needed it when he was a freshman.  But Ryan Dean never had a role model to hold his hand.  Why should he have to lead little Sam around with him wherever he goes?


Besides, Sam is so claustrophobic that the pair will have to sleep with their door or window open all through the winter.  And whenever Sam has to use the bathroom, Ryan Dean has to step into the hallway.  And his classmates have started teasing Ryan Dean about his constant companion, which is the last thing a senior trying to cement his reputation needs.


Annie Altman is still here, too, and now 15-year-old Ryan Dean doesn't exactly know how to take their relationship to the next level--yes, you know, sex.  Of course, Annie might know a little more about that, being 17, but he's always had issues with being the younger partner in that relationship.  Besides, at Pine Mountain, how could they ever find free time alone, anyway.  That is, if Sam Abernathy would ever stop following him around like a puppy.


Last year's senior class cast of characters is gone, so the book brings us evolving returning characters like former best friend Sean Flaherty, and brand new ones like horny bisexual Swede Spotted John, who has the hots for Ryan Dean.  Yes, you heard all those adjectives correctly.  And Joey Cosentino's brother is here now, too, but he is as reserved and reticent as Joey was outgoing and approachable.  But Ryan Dean needs to talk to him.  He's not sure what he'd say, but so much seems to have been left unsaid with Joey.  And then there's wide-eyed Sam again, popping up at every corner at the worst possible moment.


Throughout, Ryan Dean is sure the Next Accidental Terrible Experience is about to happen, and draws the personified NATE in all his latest comic strips.  The fact that nothing terrible happens as time passes doesn't change Ryan Dean's attitude.  He's clearly not over last year's calamities, and all he wants is to slide by his senior year—oh yeah, and to sleep with Annie.  But there's Sam again, and, well, sometimes you can’t avoid your responsibilities, especially when you don't want them.  Damn that Sam!


Stand-Off is an absolutely delightful book about an absolutely delightfully flawed fifteen-year-old whose struggles to accept his twelve-year-old roommate mirror his struggles to accept himself.

My rating:  Four-and-a-half out of five pair of Wonder Woman boys’ underpants.

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