One Seriously Messed-Up Week
by Tom Clempson
Atom pp 407
Most of us have exaggerated views of our teenage years. The passage of time tends to inflate people and places from the past in a way that they always seem to have been a lot more colourful and heroic than they really were. The paradox is that while teen years are a time bomb of fear, doubts and indecision, in hindsight they become more of an exciting adventure we wax lyrical about.
Tom Clempson marvellously captures the teenage years in everyone’s life, when parents become enemies, friends turn into lovers and teachers evolve into a source of romantic fixation. The author is brave enough to write in the first person, a risky enterprise at the best of times but especially so when writing about teens, because as we all know, their language dates so rapidly. But Mr Clempson manages to pull it off and for those who are not delicate in the stomach and sheepish in the mind, there is no getting round the fact that every page of this book is littered with what parents would most probably classify as bad language, even if they didn’t understand any of it.
Having said that, Mr Clempson’s work is a veritable reading joyride. Jack is an endearing lad with all the uncertainties, desires and preoccupations of his generation. One minute he is worshipping the lovely Eleanor from afar, praising her as a pure and beautiful angel, and the next he is comparing the merits of various girls’ assets with his friends. He plays it cool but constantly frets about looking like an idiot, he wants to do well in his exams but skips class with barely a qualm, and he rarely allows something as unimportant as a lesson to intrude on his conversations. He is, in fact, that collection of contradictions, anxieties and bravadoes which is known as the average teenage boy.
Go back in time. Remember the special words you and your friends shared in class, at parties and dances, even at each other’s homes? Remember how parents just stared back, thinking you were either talking gibberish or some alien language? Our hero Jack (he is really called Sam Taylor, but finds the new name more exciting) likewise has a fascination with creating new and eloquent words, usually to describe people he doesn’t like, and also usually with at least a passing reference to certain aspects of the human anatomy. Mr Clempson goes headfirst into writing and using exactly the same language Jack would, in all its glorious abundance and colour.
The rest of the book deals with all those universal topics which preoccupy young people and have troubled them since adolescence was first acknowledged. On the surface, Jack is most concerned about getting the girl, and he plans and strategises as would a general to make her notice him. But he is uncertain of himself and a little shy, and we find during the course of the book that he spends just as much time evaluating his friendships. Like many people he suddenly realises he spends time with his closest companions through habit and serendipity rather than affection – he makes tentative moves towards a new social grouping as the story progresses, until he reaches that happy point where, as he says, he and another boy are such good friends they can enjoy calling each other gay.
Jack’s own identity is another source of personal confusion – he longs to be brave and cool and sporty and handsome, and like many adolescents he experiments with various personae, including one which insists on speaking asides to an imaginary camera. Like many young people, he comes up against the kind of casual violence some of his classmates use instead of speech or reason, so he has to spend much of the book avoiding a bully or subtly forging alliances to gain protection.
All this is done with much wit, humour and an irrepressible lightheartedness of tone which makes you want to keep on reading. The book is funny, crude, fresh and authentic, and despite one or two rather convenient turns of the plot, teen readers will love it. I don’t know about mum and dad though.
• Mr Flores is a writer, journalist and broadcaster. He has written books of fiction and non-fiction as well as poetry in both Maltese and English. He was one of the co-founders of the Moviment Qawmien Letterarju.