What Whiskey Goes With Cheese?: I read “The Spectacular Now”

What Whiskey Goes With Cheese?: I read “The Spectacular Now” September 20, 2014

This is just a quick note to say that I read Tim Tharp’s Spectacular Now, the YA novel on which the movie was based, and I really enjoyed it. It’s the tale of a high-school cutup and ladies’ man who’s also a barely-functional alcoholic. He’s a generous, sweet-natured guy, fairly open about his self-deceptions, and a total cheeseball. The book is sometimes preachy in an authorial way, which I didn’t care for, but most of its occasional swerves into preachiness are much more organic–high-school kids themselves are kind of preachy. And Sutter Keely, our hero, is a cheesy dude who listens to Dean Martin and calls himself “the Sutterman”: a layer of irony, sure, but underneath the irony there’s a layer of sincere delight in his own ridiculousness. Sutter asks for advice, comforts small children, takes a party out of control and then holds his girlfriend’s hair while she pukes; he’s a bad influence with a good heart. He’s just very fun to spend time with.

The book avoids a lot of the movie’s awful divorce cliches. First of all, Tharp spends a lot less time on the child-of-divorce stuff than the movie did. Second, the ultra-cliched scene where Sutter confesses to his mom that he doesn’t feel loved, and she reassures him, isn’t in this book at all. Their relationship remains prickly and mistrustful; we don’t even know how mistrustful, really, because the book is so tightly embedded in Sutter’s unreliable POV. These factors add up to a book which trusts and respects its audience a lot more than the movie did. (The final scene is also different, in a way which, again, trusts the audience more to fill in the blanks.)

As far as the alcoholism: Man, this book is good. I loved Sutter’s skyhooksy optimism over this big don’t-look-down chasm of despair. I loved the description of how his hangovers are changing:

 I used to enjoy them. They didn’t give me a headache or a sick stomach or anything like that. Instead, I’d feel cleansed. Redeemed. If it was a really serious party the night before, I’d get this survivor-like sensation, like Robinson Crusoe after a shipwreck, washed up on the shore of a new day, ready for the next adventure.

Lately, though, my hangovers have started to take on a mean streak. It’s the opposite of that fine redemption feeling–a vague, weird guilt instead.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a description of that exact thing, and yeah: I totally remember that.

Once Sutter starts to admit how hopeless he is, the preachiness does notch up a tad. But one thing which was so refreshing about this book is its honesty about how much fun drinking is. Dumb teenage drinking, falling-off-a-roof drinking. All the good things about thoroughly debauched excess are here–the way it slams you into the present tense and keeps you there, the ecstasy, the contact with the beauty of the physical world around you (like that Walker Percy line about the oaks), the hilarity, the risk-taking and demolition of your inhibitions. Great stuff.

And when I compare this approach to the “problem novels” which were really all we got when I was a teen, I think Tharp’s approach is much less romanticizing. Those lugubrious go-ask-Alice things helped me to connect drugs and alcohol with a kind of fated despair, a self-pitying doominess. TSN identifies that exact movement and holds it up to the light; more than that, TSN romanticizes the parts of drinking which are actually great, and makes Sutter’s despair feel wrong, obviously a product of his damage rather than some access to the hidden truth of the universe. His lack of self-pity is presented as admirable; his lack of hope is presented as a huge mistake. Idiocy, not insight. He’s missing out.

I really loved this book.


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