Chris Crutcher - Hero or Villain?
Responses of Parents, Students, Critics, Teachers
Chris Crutcher was last year's guest author at Youngstown State University's English Festival, an annual three-day event involving over 3000 area middle and high school students in reading, discussing, and writing about a number of young adult novels, plays, and short stories, and he certainly made a big impact on the whole community -- and not just because of his winning personality and boyish charm. Everyone -- parents, teachers, and administrators, as well as students -- soon were talking about his books. Or, to be more exact, page twelve of Running Loose.
The tired old school gag of the popcorn box in which a hole is cut and "Old Norton" (one character's name for his penis) is placed for a movie date's shock soon had the Diocese of Youngstown withdrawing from participation in the Festival. Tom Gay, the chair of the English Festival committee, received more complaints about Crutcher's books than about any previous ones in the Festival's twelve-year history. And page twelve got most of the attention. Most of the complainants were parents, or teachers concerned about parents' reactions, and the nature of their complaints are familiar in censorship controversies surrounding literature read by young adults.
First of all, few of the complainants had read Running Loose -- they had heard about "Old Norton" and thought it was "disgusting." Other more complex issues were overlooked. Gay admits that when he was first considering Running Loose for the Festival, he was concerned about two episodes or, rather, that there might be concerns from parents or teachers. Louie Banks, the teenage protagonist, considers sleeping with his girlfriend and actually plans to spend the weekend with her at her parents' cabin. He asks his father to lie about his plans to his mother, and his father agrees. However, none of the complaints Gay received centered on those issues -- all were about the popcorn box. Interestingly, the Festival booklist that year also included Fallen Angels, a book in which "fuck" appears often, but Gay received no complaints.
None of this will come as a surprise to those in the YA field. The YSU English Festival's experience has been typical -- that parents' response, and the response of some teachers and librarians, to young adult realism is often negative and often focused on details. These details offend their sensibilities. As Norma Klein comments in "On Being a Banned Writer," books for children and young adults "often contain elements of life that children find true, real, and involving, but which adults find disturbing" (p. 18). Hemingway notes much the same phenomenon in Islands in the Stream when he has his protagonist Thomas Hudson tell his sons, "I told you not to curse in front of grown-ups."
As Klein's comment suggests, adults' and young adults' responses are often very different. Crutcher was also one of the most popular authors ever with students at the English Festival. And this connection is perhaps instructive -- Crutcher, and other writers for children and adolescents, may be popular because they offend adult sensibilities. Alison Lurie's Don't Tell the Grown-ups argues this point. When I asked several groups of student participants what they thought about the brouhaha over Running Loose, they were predictably horrified -- at adults' response. "Old Norton" was a joke, and a corny one at that. More significantly, they loved what they perceived as Crutcher's realism. He was in tune with their real lives, and he wrote about their interests and concerns and about what they knew was going on all around them. Their responses mirrored the responses of another group of students to another book that many adults have found offensive, The Catcher in the Rye, as noted by an eighth-grade teacher in "Teaching Frequently Censored Books." One student wrote, "If teachers and parents are trying to shield their children from the controversial scenes and the questionable language, then they are trying to shield them from real life" (Orbison, p. 48).
The responses of students I talked to at the English Festival were similar to the findings of more formal studies done on young adult reading choices. The term "real" came up over and over. As Barbara G. Samuels sums up in "Young Adults' Choices: Why Do Students `Really Like' Particular Books?"
Overwhelmingly, and certainly not surprisingly, students liked books with teen protagonists and stories that might be termed realistic fiction or "problem" novels. Many comments indicated that they liked books that seemed real to them or that involved teens with problems that they themselves had or thought those around them had. (p. 719)
Similarly, Ann L. Chase in "Young Adults: What Do They Read, and Why?" discovered when she left a blank space for students to write in what factors were important to them when selecting books, the top two responses were "It's about kids my age" and "It relates to my life" (p. 6).
So the response to young adult realism of many adults, at least non-specialist ones, is negative, judging from the attempts nationwide at censorship and the experience of the YSU English Festival with Chris Crutcher (and, by the way, other authors). And the response of most kids is positive. What about the response of critics -- adults, yes, but trained in literary analysis and presumably reacting to more than the immediate and personal "It offends me" or "It's about kids like me"? Again, I want to use Crutcher as my focus.
Reviews of Crutcher's books have been mixed. On one hand, four of his books have been named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. In an informal survey done by Ted Hipple of ALAN members, Running Loose, Stotan!, and Chinese Handcuffs were in the list of best young adult novels of the 1980s. And reviewers have consistently praised his "truly believable male adolescent characters" (Silvey, Horn Book), his dialogue "handled with aplomb" (Zvirin, Booklist), and his prose "direct, strong, and even" (Smith, The Lion and the Unicorn).
On the other hand, plots are often criticized as "contrived" (Morning, School Library Journal) or "cluttered" and "overloaded" (Zvirin, Booklist). Minor character portraits are called "amateurish" (Kirkus Reviews). And his books lean "heavily toward didacticism" (English Journal). One reviewer notes that "Characters keep asking `can we talk' and then prattle on with enormous presence and wisdom about the evils of society, their parents, all adults, their own sorry lot in life, and love" (Unsworth, School Library Journal).
As the students I talked to at the English Festival confirmed, Crutcher's novels are also formulaic, and very predictable. When I asked them to work in small groups and outline a new Chris Crutcher novel, they had no trouble. One group created The Multiple-Choice Crutcher: a high school gymnast/golfer/hockey player/wrestler is having a rough time with his parents/school/coach/girlfriend; his brother/sister/girlfriend/best friend is killed/has a terminal disease/disappears/is convicted of a capital offense; his brother/sister/girlfriend/best friend is sexually/physically abused; he comes to terms with his life and wins/loses the big game/match, play by play.
Another group wrote a parody, Chinese Checkers. The best Chinese checkers player in Barracuda High School has a run-in with the principal over the toasted cheese sandwiches in the cafeteria and quits the team in protest. He is suspended for scrawling "No More Soggy Cheese Sandwiches" on the cafeteria wall. He watches as his girlfriend, trying to make him a crispy toasted cheese sandwich, is electrocuted by a faulty toaster plug. In despair, he goes to his coach, a martial artist and damn good Cantonese cook, who teaches him to meditate, convinces him to get back on the team, and shows him how to make toasted tofu burgers. In the last chapter, our hero narrowly loses the championship to the crew at the local Burger King. The principal, meanwhile, dies on the way to the hospital, a massive coronary from blocked arteries.
I don't mean to pick on Crutcher. He is easy to parody, but so are Hemingway and Faulkner, as the annual Bad Hemingway and Faux Faulkner contests show. A number of critics have shown less humor in their exasperation over Crutcher's over-the-top melodramatic excesses. As Unsworthwrites in his review of Chinese Handcuffs, "There's a place in fiction for teenage problems, but surely not all in one novel" (p. 118). So what's a teacher to do? Students identify like crazy with Crutcher. They love him. But is relevance everything? Is the problem with young adult literary realism not that it is offensive or sordid but that it panders to readers, sometimes sacrificing quality to the single-minded goal of reader identification?
On the other hand, can the strength of young adult realism be that students read it eagerly and it provides a good springboard for a consideration of sophisticated literary matters of structure, pattern, and theme? Also, teachers can easily bring into a discussion of young adult novels such as Crutcher's other literature that is more demanding and better crafted but that is built on the same patterns. As Crutcher himself says, "I want to be remembered as a storyteller, and I want to tell stories that seem real so that people will recognize something in their own lives and see the connections. We are all connected" (McDonnell, p. 333). As teachers can help students see, we are all connected -- to other lives in other times. Literature is not just immediate but timeless.
When I asked students at the English Festival to think about the similarities among Running Loose, Stotan!, and Chinese Handcuffs, one of the threads they found running through all three books was the philosophy, pointed to in the titles. When the characters stop pushing, they start succeeding. They had no trouble finding quotations from the books that explained the titles. I asked what "running loose" means. Louie Banks doesn't run against the clock. He runs loose. He runs his race (p. 185). What he says at the end is that he's learned "[t]here's nothing they can do to you when you don't care anymore" (pp. 189-190). I asked what a Stotan is and what Stotan Week is. Max Il Song, the swim coach, says,
Remember the times you gave up the fight and just went with Stotan Week -- saw which way the river was flowing and went that way too. Most times the depth of your well isn't measured in how hard you fight -- how tough you are -- but in your ability to see what is and go with that. If you'd fought me this week, I'd have won. (p. 89)
I asked what Chinese handcuffs are. You get free of them by "releasing, instead of pulling hard" (p. 52). The gypsy tells Stacy that they're a secret of life. "You have to do the exactly opposite what it seems you should do. You have to let go . . . turn into it" (p. 95).
Those sentiments reminded me of Hamlet's final realization that "the readiness is all" (V.ii.222), that preparation is something that happens in the world as much as in ourselves, and that part of Hamlet's readiness is the recognition that events are sometimes in the saddle and ride us, and that "success" is a matter of adjusting our spiritual readiness with the readiness of the events around us. Hamlet has realized this and warns Laertes:
For though I am not splenitive and rash,
Yet have I in me something dangerous,
Which let thy wisdom fear. (V.i.261-263)
This is another way of saying that there's nothing they can do to you when you don't care anymore. The readiness is all.
The philosophy expressed in Crutcher's novels also brought to mind Julius Caesar, when Brutus says, "There is a tide in the affairs of men,/ When taken at the flood, leads on to fortune" (IV.iii.218-219). We can't do it all ourselves -- we have to learn when to trust the time and the world, and be ready to catch the right wave when it comes. See which way the river is flowing and go that way too. The fact that Brutus is eventually defeated and kills himself, and that Hamlet, too, dies, raises important questions about the heroes of Crutcher's novels and their fates and provides a good opportunity for discussion. A brief summary of Hamlet or Julius Caesar makes sense in this context and defuses any resistance that students might feel toward such "classics."
The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighted down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December. Frost cracking
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came out pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge. I smiled,
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of newly planted trees,
Until we were breathing
Before a drugstore. We
Entered, the tiny bell
Bringing a saleslady
Down a narrow aisle of goods.
I turned to the candies
Tiered like bleachers,
And asked what she wanted --
Light in her eyes, a smile
Starting at the corners
Of her mouth. I fingered
A nickel in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn't say anything.
I took the nickel from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter. When I looked up,
The lady's eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all
A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl's hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange,
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my
What in this poem is like Crutcher and what is different? Students see the two adolescents, the young boy especially unsure in his first date. She is surrounded by brightness; he is cold, weighted down with something hidden from us. Dogs bark and cars hiss. Yet he has something bright too, inside himself, two hidden oranges that, when faced with an impossible predicament, he pulls out. He doesn't say anything, argue or fight or plead, but quietly sets one on the counter. He does this in front of the candies tiered like bleachers -- he feels as if he is in an athletic contest, just another sort. And he succeeds, not by pushing but by assessing the situation and trying to steer events, not control them. And now the ordinary becomes a brightness he holds in his hand. He has brought something out of himself -- and now he can make fire with nothing but his own hands.
Gary Snyder has written a haiku that also expresses this Zen-like philosophy:
After weeks of watching the roof leak
I fixed it tonight
By moving a single board.
How easy it is sometimes to fix things when you relax, see what is, and focus your energies. The poem is also a wonderful example of form following function.
Of course, making connections between the "classics" and young adult literature is not new. In "YA Novels in the AP Classroom: Crutcher Meets Camus," Patricia Spencer argues the value of "[d]iscovering the existential elements and heroes in modern adolescent literature" in order to enliven and make relevant an AP unit on philosophy in literature that focuses primarily on Camus (p. 44). The approach I am advocating is the reverse and goes further, I think -- we can teach young adult novels to all students and help them, by our own enthusiasm for and knowledge of literature, to grow as readers and see the patterns -- the connections -- in books.
There are many kinds of relevance. Any literature course should relate literature to our lives; but it also should link our lives to literature, to its historical relation to the lives that have gone before, with their struggles and dreams so similar to ours. Any definition of relevance that does not embrace the past is an incomplete one.
A faculty member in the English Department at Youngstown State University, Betty Greenway lends her support to the annual Youngstown English Festival, where Chris Crutcher was Guest Author.