An Adult Reads Chris Crutcher
Twelve-year-old Morgan told me that Chris Crutcher was his favorite novelist. "You must read his books!" he said, but I didn't rush to follow his suggestion. I thought that our tastes in fiction wouldn't be much alike, since the stories Morgan himself writes (quite skillfully) are mostly science fiction and fantasy, and that's not the genre I usually choose to read.
So I forgot about Chris Crutcher. Several months later, visiting another city and passing time between appointments, I browsed in the Young Adult section of a bookstore and was drawn to a book with the title Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. I opened it, began reading, and there went the next hour. I read until it was time to leave and then came back later to finish the story. In all this, I hadn't even noticed the author's name until I happened to pause and look at the cover. Caught by surprise, I silently apologized to Morgan. The author was Chris Crutcher, and Morgan, you were right. I do think his work is remarkable. Now I recommend it to young people whenever I have the chance, but I also freely admit that I find it captivating myself.
Of Crutcher's several books, the ones that stay in my mind most vividly are Chinese Handcuffs (1989) and the one I found in the bookstore, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes (1993). In both books, young people suffer horribly, and in both books Crutcher's special kind of no-nonsense compassion comes through in the voices of the teenage narrators and in the few adult advocates they find. There's genuine brutality and evil in these stories, but there's a fascinating and believable kind of triumph as well -- both of spirit and of practical survival.
Chinese Handcuffs is about the friendship between Dillon, who saw his brother shoot himself and couldn't do anything to stop him, and Jennifer, the school's basketball star who is hiding a pain that Dillon at first can't figure out. Dillon is the assistant coach for the girls' basketball team -- an intriguing subplot in itself -- and the head coach turns out to be one of those adult advocates, one of the genuine listeners, who regularly appear in Crutcher's work. Though Crutcher's characters and his plots are too complex to be served by quick summaries, I can say here that much of the book is about Dillon's discovery that Jennifer's pain is rooted in her stepfather's continual sexual abuse, in her anger at her mother for not protecting her, and in her fear that the abuse will eventually extend to her younger sister as well.
In Staying Fat, there's a similarly horrific father, this time the man who (we gradually learn) burned his three-year-old daughter in a brutal display of power and control. Sarah Byrnes (who acknowledges the terrible pun in her name and, therefore, insists that people use it in full), now 17 and with a completely disfigured face and hands, is tough, very smart, and both literally and figuratively scarred. The narrator of the story is her friend Eric, also known as Moby (like the whale). The title refers to Moby's loyalty: he and Sarah Byrnes became friends because they were both outcasts, Sarah Byrnes because of her scars and Moby because of his enormous size. When Moby joins the swim team (again coached by a woman who ends up being one of the book's most heroic characters) and loses weight, he eats twice as much as ever so as to stay fat -- in other words, to stay on the fringes -- for, and with, his closest friend.
So in each book there is a brutal adult, a tough, resilient, yet also deeply tormented heroine, a fiercely loyal male friend, and at least one adult who is willing to go out on a limb, to break the adults-side-with-adults ethic and risk her colleagues' approval to protect and defend the kids in her charge. It must be this triumph of loyalty and risk over brutality and weakness that keeps drawing me back to these books.
Both books end with the narrators taking dramatic risks to save their friends from further harm. An interesting and compelling element of these stories is that both Sarah Byrnes and Jennifer Lawless have been damaged in such complex ways that neither can be the girlfriend of the male characters through whom we meet them. Yet these aren't guys who are uninterested in having girlfriends. In Staying Fat, Moby has another girlfriend (part of an equally moving subplot), and in Handcuffs, Dillon would like to be able to consider Jennifer his girlfriend and freely admits that he wishes she could return his feelings. But as he comes to understand what has happened to her, he accepts that for now and probably for a long time to come, this isn't going to happen. So neither Moby's love for Sarah Byrnes nor Dillon's for Jennifer is a sexual or romantic love, and yet they put their lives on the line for these girls in several ways. Thus Crutcher's stories are strong testimonies to the power of friendship and the strength of compassion that can exist even in young people, who are so often accused of being preoccupied only with their own needs.
Despite the huge risks that these boys take for their friends (I don't want to reveal the plots too thoroughly by explaining exactly what kinds of risks), they also realize that it won't work to exist in a teenager-only universe. Though both girls vehemently resist the idea of getting any kind of outside help, each boy ultimately finds at least one (and sometimes several) adults in whom he dares to confide. As readers, we can understand exactly why the girls' lifetimes of pain and betrayal make them wary of asking anyone else for help, but the adults prove themselves worthy of such trust. Crutcher makes his "good adult" characters as persuasive as the evil ones. There's no "kids are true friends but adults are unreliable" message here; and, although Crutcher is clearly scornful of adults whose rules are arbitrary and who exist only to exercise their power over kids, he lets the authentic, caring, courageous adults be the ones who make a difference. It seems quite an intentional part of Crutcher's message or vision that the "good adults" in both books are team coaches who extend to their kids the demands of real work, demands which in turn yield real growth. In Handcuffs, Dillon says of Coach Sherman, "Her teams win and lose with grace and dignity, and her players never walk away empty handed, never walk away without a lesson." Nor, indeed, do Crutcher's readers. I see from his bio that Crutcher is a child and family therapist; I can guess that he extends the same mix of compassion and demand that the coaches in his books extend to young people. I don't know which came first -- therapist or novelist -- but I'm grateful that Crutcher's novels are able to reflect his acute understanding of troubled young people.
There are no easy, television endings to these stories. Good does ultimately triumph over evil, but people remain just as complex as they ever were, and there's no suggestion that they forgive or heal quickly. When Jennifer discovers what Dillon has done to prove that her stepfather has abused her, she doesn't throw her arms around him in gratitude even though he has clearly saved her and even though we, the readers, half expect her to demonstrate the same kind of cathartic relief we feel. Crutcher instead shows us the tediously difficult reality of Jennifer's life: she carries her scars with her all the time. She can't simply rejoice and be thankful and allow herself to see Dillon's act as purely one of courage and love. Similarly, in Staying Fat, when Sarah Byrnes and Coach Lemry track down Sarah Byrnes's mother, the one person who might be able to testify to what Sarah Byrnes's father did to her those many years ago, they discover that she refuses to do it, even though not doing it means condemning her daughter to continued danger. Some people just can't do what they can't do. In Crutcher's world, the weak don't necessarily become strong all of a sudden, and the evil don't necessarily see the light and repent. Yet the strong, the courageous, the good people do somehow manage to persevere. Love, loyalty, and risk do triumph, so that even if we aren't left feeling hopeful about humanity in general, we are left feeling a passionate desire to be one of the adults who deserves kids' trust. These aren't just books for kids, and they aren't even just for adults who like young adult literature. They're for those of us who share Crutcher's commitment to being one of the good ones, one of the people who does what's necessary. May we live up to the standard he sets.
Susannah Sheffer's books include Writing Because We Love To and A Sense of Self: Listening to Homeschooled Adolescent Girls (both published by Boynton/Cook-Heinemann). She writes a column for Merlyn's Pen and edits Growing Without Schooling.
Copyright 1997. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not inteded for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Sheffer, Susannah. (1997). An adult reads Chris Crutcher. The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 3, 10-11.