Author: Tim Tharp
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: November 2008
Read: May 2014
Where It Came From: Library
Rating: 4.5 Bright Planets
The Quick and Dirty:
Sutter Keely is a high school senior with a firm philosophy of living in the now. Thinking about the past of his parents’ divorce hurts, and even the future seems pointless and vague. Behind his confident claims that he’s happy in his ever-maintained buzz, we see that even Sutter’s present isn’t quite as spectacular as he says he is. The disconnect between Sutter’s perception of his life and everyone else’s view of it becomes even more poignant when Sutter, recently dumped, decides to help a quiet honors student, Aimee, develop self-confidence. I'm still nursing a book hangover, days after finishing it. Almost flawlessly executed novel in the tradition of The Catcher in the Rye.
The Wordy Version:
You guys, it’s two days since I finished The Spectacular Now and I’ve read an entire new book since then, but I’m still having major feels about The Spectacular Now. To me this means all of you should pick up a copy of the book for yourselves. And if any of the plot summary or response I give you makes the book sound like it’s not for you, just ignore that feeling and read it anyway. I was unsure I’d like it myself, and I was particularly suspicious of the Catcher in the Rye feeling I was getting off of the tone (I’ve never fully appreciated Holden Caulfield), but I am so glad I stuck through because this book is top quality.
When we meet Sutter Keely, he is in his car, drinking some whisky while ditching algebra to meet up with his girlfriend. Sutter is very happy with his girlfriend, but he makes a few mistakes (like kind of going on a double date to get his best friend a girlfriend) that lead her to break up with him. Sutter at first believes reconciliation will happen easily, but his focus shifts after Aimee Finecky finds Sutter passed out on a lawn along her paper route. Sutter determines that shy Aimee needs his help to become more confident in asserting her wishes and in getting a boyfriend. Sutter soon finds himself dating Aimee, but his live-in-the-now philosophy is at odds with her developing future plans, and her willingness to follow his lead in drinks and parties also signal that their relationship is troubled at its basic core. As high school graduation approaches, Aimee forces Sutter to consider his past and future.
I’m still a little surprised that I responded so strongly to the character of Sutter, buried as it is within a strong colloquial narrative voice where people don’t say things as much as they’re like in dialogue, and “spanktacular” is the highest form of praise. Sutter is a complicated character, whose contradictions make it hard to reduce him to simple adjectives. He’s intensely judgmental about his family, but almost entirely accepting of his friends and acquaintances. He’s a cynic and a dreamer at separate turns; he sees himself as the center of the party but also as a permanent outlier to the social scene; and he’s an unrepentant drunk driver with a code of ethics that leads him to deliver a beautifully heartfelt apology for the comparatively minor rudeness of being delayed for a lunch date.
The character of Aimee is equally complex and sympathetic. Aimee is working her gambler mother’s paper route when she finds Sutter passed out, and her kindness leaves Sutter with the impression that she views him as “a bird she found with a broken wing.” Sutter sees her as gentle and soft—a pillow, a voice like a marshmallow—and constantly yielding to the people around her. She idolizes a science fiction space commander, and dreams of working at NASA and later owning a horse ranch. Sutter claims his interest in Aimee is in increasing her confidence through listening and showing her that guys like her, and with his careful observations of instances where Aimee is too passive, Sutter convincingly reverses the nurturing/rescuing image from their first meeting. Sutter, in spite of his very good intentions, undervalues Aimee in many ways, but Tim Tharp always makes sure that Aimee’s qualities shine through Sutter’s narrative and keep her from being a victim in the story.
The rest of the teenage characters have less page time than Aimee while also developing depth around Sutter’s limited lens. As Ricky, Sutter’s childhood best friend, and Cassidy, Sutter’s ideal girlfriend, navigate their relationships and transitions to life after high school, the aspects of their characters that let them get along well with Sutter begin to be tempered by maturity without it feeling like they are acting out of character.
I imagine everyone cites this, but Sutter’s introduction of Cassidy is a set piece of writing from the book, showing Sutter’s default to transience in his life, his value of intelligence and drinking, his imagination, and his way of seeing beyond the conventional:
Cassidy is the best girlfriend ever. I’ve dated her for a full two months longer than anyone else. She’s smart and witty and original and can chug a beer faster than most guys I know. On top of that, she is absolutely beautiful. I mean spanktacular. Talk about pure colors. She’s high-definition. Scandinavian blond hair, eyes as blue as fiords, skin like vanilla ice cream or flower petals or sugar frosting . . .
But what really sets Cassidy apart is that she’s so damn beautifully fat. And believe me, I don’t use the word fat in a negative way. The fashion magazine girls are dried-up skeletons next to her. She has immaculate proportions. It’s like if you took Marilyn Monroe and pumped up her curves three sizes with an air hose. When I move my fingers along Cassidy’s body, I feel like Admiral Byrd or Coronado, exploring uncharted territory.
But as much as I can talk about the skill of the writing and the assortment of great characters, the real reason to read the book is the ending. (And for you people who saw the movie and think you know what I’m talking about, the book takes a different direction.) If you, like Alyssa, are against spoilers, this is the end of the review for you. Read the book and we can talk more.
Now, spoiler loving friends, we are alone and I can tell you that the last chapters of the book were some of the grimmest I can remember. As much as Sutter shows his good intentions and ability to dream throughout the novel, he is unable to stop drinking or admit how much of a problem his drinking is, and his one plan for the future is to break up with Aimee before he destroys her bright future with his own problems. I think the ending is brilliant; had Sutter run for help, the entire book would have changed into a problem teen learning a lesson. Instead, it draws everything back to the philosophy of living and dying in the now, and offers no easy way for Sutter to build on some of the realizations he’s had throughout his story. Sutter’s life is drifting towards barrenness as all his friends move on from high school parties to their optimistic college futures, leaving Sutter in an adult world he is unprepared for, and partially unable to even consider. There is no neat resolution, just a sad vignette of Sutter aimlessly cruising around bars to make friends for the night and defensively proclaim that the present is all he needs.