*Explicit language warning*
This book has earned a place on the American Library Association's 2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults list.
Title: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl | Author: Jesse Andrews | Publisher: Abrams/Amulet Books 2012
The ALA offers the following synopsis: Greg and Earl are forced to spend time with a classmate recently diagnosed with leukemia. Will their lives change for the better or just stay the same?
Plot Summary: Greg is a high school senior who has made it his life's work to be socially invisible at school at all times. He stays on the periphery of every clique and is proud of his ability to blend in and stay under the radar. Greg has one "friend" named Earl even though he sees Earl more as his coworker. Together they have been immersed in film production since they were young. Greg realizes that the films he and Earl make aren't very good and he's not particularly proud of them, but he enjoys the process and works hard to improve his technique.
All is going relatively well in Greg's last year of high school until he learns that a fellow student and longtime acquaintance (Rachel) has been diagnosed with leukemia. His mother asks him to befriend Rachel and help cheer her up. This story revolves around Greg's own social awkwardness, Earl's dysfunctional home life and Rachel's unsuccessful battle with leukemia.
Review : This young adult book has earned a Mature Content rating for extreme language, drug usage, aberrant behaviors including socially inappropriate humor, violence, racial and gender stereotyping and graphic sexual content. It also receives a half star for story development.
I have indicated that this story receives a Mature Content rating and that it is not recommended for readers under 17. Frankly, I'm in my forties and I'm not sure that I've yet reached the necessary maturity level required for reading this book. Right from the get-go the reader will discover that Greg is a glib and fairly unpleasant personality. The first sentence of the novel sets the tone beautifully and will tell you everything you need to know about the characters you are about to meet and the story of their lives, "So in order to understand everything that happened, you have to start from the premise that high school sucks." This clears the way for Greg to regurgitate any stereotype, obscenity and aspersion that author Jesse Andrews can manage to devise in the name of pop culture chic.
After it has been firmly established and repeatedly underscored that Greg hates school, he proceeds to categorize each social clique he encounters as proof of why he could never be friends with any of them. Descriptions like, "All the jocks are black and all the white kids are afraid of them," help to encourage and cement prejudice in the minds of young adult readers. The likening of the "church kids" to child molesters and the assertion that jocks fear homosexuals the way Nazis feared the Jews accentuates Greg's perverse belief that anyone who adapts to social norms has a mental disorder.
This barely gets us out of the first chapter.
Throughout Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the reader will be inundated with numerous detailed references to oral sex, homosexual sex, drug dealing and gang activity. There are a good many graphic discussions of masturbation that Greg has with dying Rachel and Rachel is happy to encourage Greg in his diatribes. The lead character exhibits a strong disrespect for his own Jewish traditions and proudly embraces ignorance of his faith in spite of having received Hebrew schooling. About midway through the story, Greg explains to readers that "Israel is where virginity goes to die."
At some point, the reader may question whether Greg intends to convert to Christianity due to the numerous times he invokes the name of Jesus Christ.
The reader will also learn that Greg's African American "coworker" Earl has an alcoholic mother who spends all day getting drunk and hanging out in chat rooms while her children are left to fend for themselves. With no father involved, the children turn to drug usage, drug dealing and general gangbanging. Earl's 13 year old brother sports a racially offensive tattoo on his neck and has already fathered a child. Earl, himself, is described as a chain smoker and former drug user.
About midway through the story, Greg and Earl are having lunch in their favorite teacher's classroom and help themselves to Mr. McCarthy's soup without permission. They soon realize that they are very high on marijuana, and the reader is told that their accidental ingestion of the drug comes from the consumption of Mr. McCarthy's soup. This is a reinforced point throughout the remainder of the story, and it isn't corrected until the epilogue where the reader discovers that it was actually one of Earl's brothers that laced some cookies with pot.
Keeping in mind that I decided not to count any uses of the words "hell," "ass" or "damn" and that I listed the multiple references to donkey genitalia in a different category, I counted 174 separate obscenities including 90 uses of what we will politely term the "F" word. There are 34 references to sex, homosexuality and gender confusion, 42 instances of antisocial or violent behavior, and 37 uses of sexually explicit or socially inappropriate humor.
The interesting point that we should not neglect is that very little of this story actually focuses on "the dying girl." The girl lives and the girl dies having impacted the story in only the smallest ways possible. The reason that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl earns any rating at all is because the lead character comes to understand that he barely turned his focus from himself long enough to appreciate the character Rachel while she lived. There is a reasonably powerful moment when Greg recognizes the uniqueness of Rachel, that she that has passed permanently from this earth and that she will never be repeated.
I also liked that he understood the concept of banality in this way:
Just because something is weird and hard to understand doesn't mean it's creative. That's the whole problem. If you want to pretend that something is good, even when it's not, that's when you use the word "creative."
Too bad this theme didn't transcend mere dialog and impact Jesse Andrew's storyline. In spite of Greg's epiphany regarding Rachel, there isn't any deep contemplation about growing up and no meaningful change in the character is ever achieved.
Now…whether earning of a half star for two well-made points means that the American Library Association should have designated Me and Earl and the Dying Girl as one of the best YA books of 2013 is quite another issue. It's a little like recommending a new music album because the lead singer was able to sing two notes on key.
I do not agree with the American Library's assessment that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is worthy of the accolades that have been bestowed upon it and I do not recommend this book for children or young adults.