First Time Contributor to The ALAN Review!
Brock Cole: The Good, the Bad, and Humorously Ironic
Wendy J. Glenn
" 'I'm socially retarded for my age,' she said with a certain dignity." Thus begins my experience with Brock Cole, a writer who knows and respects the audience for whom he is writing. Cole's novels deal with contemporary issues and don't "set out deliberately to instruct, uplift, comfort, amuse or expand the horizons of those readers known, perhaps condescendingly, as 'young adults.' Yet [they] manage to accomplish all this and much more simply by telling fine stor[ies] about unforgettable character[s]" (Freed 23). In each of his three young adult novels, The Goats (1987), Celine (1989), and The Facts Speak for Themselves (1997), Cole uses common threads to create these memorable and real characters that live in a world most young readers will recognize. Although each thread is uniquely woven into the works, the resulting creations are made more powerful by the inclusion of each of these elements. In each novel, Cole's adults are generally more flawed than his young people, despite the fact that they should know more and behave accordingly. In addition, he deals honestly with concerns of young people, even those, like sexuality, that are controversial and often omitted from young adult texts. Finally, he uses humor to keep things real. Life, even when seemingly awful, is never all bad. Hope can be found on the dreariest of days, and it is our ability to laugh at ourselves and our world that gets us through.
Cole's first young adult novel, The Goats, tells the story of Laura and Howie, two young teens who become the butt of an insensitive practical joke at summer camp. The other campers decide to maroon the two on a deserted island across the lake from the camp to see how they will react. Laura and Howie are too ashamed to stick around once they know the joke is on them, so they swim back to shore and strike out on their own. They have few options, however. Howie's parents are out of the country on an archeological expedition, and Laura's mother refuses to pick her up until Parents Weekend a few days later. The remainder of the novel traces their survival tactics as they plan to stay away from camp until Laura's mother arrives. They steal clothing from a beach storage area, find money in cars with windows rolled down, and secure lodging in an abandoned summer cabin, another camp, and later an evacuated motel room. They are ingenious in their planning and clearly demonstrate their independence, so much so that Howie never wants to go back. He has a secret desire for the two to live off the land in the forest, never having to deal with the world of adults and peers they don't understand. In the end, Howie's dream does not come true in its full form, but the conclusion is optimistic. Laura and Howie meet Laura's mother, who now knows the entire story of their plight and is appalled at the camp, and the two kids plan to stick together and just "hold on" (184).
Much like the characters in his two other novels, Cole's youngsters in The Goats demonstrate more maturity and self-reliance than the adults around them. Laura and Howie are able to succeed even in the face of their seemingly impossible situation. For example, after spending the night in the motel room, Howie and Laura go to the motel restaurant for breakfast. After the meal, Howie visits the restroom. When he exits, he sees Laura held firmly by a cleaning lady while the restaurant cashier and waitress gather around asking her questions. They drag her to the motel lobby to check the registration form to see if she indeed has a room with her family as she claims. While they are checking the motel files, Howie sneaks from the restroom and sets off the fire alarm, causing chaos and thus a diversion. The two are able to walk away from the motel unnoticed and unscathed. These loners not only find one another but find freedom in their shared survival.
Independent Young People and Immature Adults
The independent nature of the young people contrasts with the immaturity of the adults in each of Cole's novels, The Goats included. When faced with difficult problems, the grown-ups back down or act irresponsibly. In The Goats, we see probably the most mature of the adults in these three novels in Maddy, Laura's mother. However, she, too, is not as strong as her daughter or Howie when facing their separation. When she speaks with Laura on the telephone to try and locate her, for example, it is Maddy who must be consoled by Laura. The mother "felt afraid. She tried to stop crying so she could hear. 'Don't cry,'" says Laura, assuming the more adult role (173).
Cole's ability to honesty deal with sexuality is seen in The Goats in a way that differs from his treatment of the topic in the other two novels. In this work, he establishes an almost pure look at sexual desire and curiosity among young people. Laura and Howie are not physically intimate, but they do demonstrate their attraction through their actions. On the first afternoon in their motel room, Cole gives us the following scene:He started to turn around, but she was already on top of him, knocking him over on the bed. She grabbed his wrists and tried to pin his arms back. He tried to push her off, but she was too strong and heavy. He was surprised at how strong she was. Her face was close to his. He could smell her breath. It didn't smell like flowers or anything familiar. It was a new kind of smell, and it was both pleasant and alarming. He decided he liked it. He was surprised, too, at how warm she was. When you don't touch people very often you forget that they are really warm. (120-121)
Later, Cole describes a conversation intermingled with sexual wonder. While the two are conversing, Laura, "picked up his hand and studied it, curling up his fingers with hers one at a time. She touched the palm of his hand with the tip of her tongue experimentally" (134). There is nothing nasty or inappropriate going on here. These kids are simply exploring their physical relationship without taking it to the extreme. The adults, however, hold quite a different view of their behavior. When Laura and Howie are picked up by a deputy sheriff who knows they have been traveling together, he questions them:'What you been doing? Getting a little nudgy, uh? Hell, I don't mind. I'm a liberal. It's okay by me if you kids have a little fun. I'll bet you and your girl have had a high old time. Ain't that right, Howie?' (161)
It is the grown-up here who assumes the worst.
Brock Cole has a wonderfully wry sense of humor which allows him to deal with heavy and potentially depressing issues; this trademark quality exists in each novel, including The Goats. Even in the midst of pain and difficulty, the two kids express laugh-out-loud insights into their situations and about the world at large. After swimming ashore and finding an abandoned cottage for the night's lodging, for example, Howie collapses on the bed. Above him, he notices a poster. He claims thatsomeone had pinned a centerfold directly overhead. It was of a lady with her legs spread. She looked as if she were falling on him from an enormous distance. It was such a joke. It was such a joke he wanted to laugh. (21)
Although he is without clothing, stuck in the woods with a girl he hardly knows after being cast out of camp by his peers, he is still able to keep life in perspective.
Another of Cole's young adult novels, Celine, tells the story of Celine Morienval, a sixteen-year-old artist who lives with Catherine, her new and superficial stepmother, while her father is out of the country. Her father has promised a trip to Florence for the summer if Celine "show[s] a little maturity," which means, in Celine's mind, "Pass all your courses, avoid detection in all crimes and misdemeanors, don't get pregnant" (18). One day after school, she befriends Jake, a young boy whose parents are going through a divorce. They spend the evening together working on Celine's new painting and watching rotten television. They become a regular pair. Jake comes to rely on Celine. Given the choice of any companion, he invites her to visit his grandmother with his father. Celine accepts and imagines herself the object of Jake's father's flirtations. In spite of her own interest in him, she later learns that this man cares nothing about her. Because Celine has become Jakes's "unofficial guardian," she takes him to his weekly counseling appointment. While waiting for Jake, she ends up talking with a psychologist herself. In the end, she realizes a trip to Florence is not what she desires at the moment. She is not entirely clear about her life, but she is coming to terms with her father, Catherine, and her broken heart with the help of Jake.
Dependable Friends, Unreliable Adults
In much the same way as Howie and Laura in The Goats, the title character from Celine demonstrates her independence much more effectively than the adults in her world. After befriending Jake, Celine becomes in many ways his caretaker; "unlike the adults in his life, she's there" (Rochman, 440). Jake spends the afternoons with her until his mother arrives home from work. One morning Jake's father forgets to pick him up; his mother has to leave for the weekend, and Catherine is away on business. Celine is all he has left. Although she has responsibilities of her own, such as finishing a paper and completing an art project, as do the adults, Celine is the one who comes through for Jake by getting him to his counseling appointment.
In addition, Celine's grown-ups, although very real, are not very admirable in facing their problems, a common element in each of Cole's works. In this novel, the "children have already inherited the earth; adults are careless, or worse yet, helpless" (Hearne 76). Jake's parents are going through a divorce and, according to Celine, not working hard enough to make things work for the sake of their son. She thinks to herself, "His parents don't like their lives anymore, and they're willing to chop the kid up a bit to change things. That's the truth, isn't it? If they really loved him so much, they wouldn't get a divorce. No, you might as well face it, Jacob. Family life is over. You're just not worth it" (86). Celine speaks from experience. After her parents divorce, her mother moves to South America and does not keep in touch with her daughter. Celine tells Jake, "she has this very important job, you see. Taking care of this old guy who's trying to cut down the rain forests before he dies. It's a very responsible job. It takes all her energy. The National Security Agency is very interested" (178). Celine's father is no different. He has remarried a woman slightly older than Celine and has run away on a lecture tour in Europe to give the women in his life time to adapt to one another (14).
Adolescent and Adult Sexuality in Celine
Celine contains genuine sexual interest on the part of Celine; yet, the focus is slightly different than that seen in the other two novels. Here, we get a glimpse of the protagonist's own fantasies, as well as the questionable sexual behavior of some adults. On the journey home from Jake's grandmother's house, Celine imagines that the father puts his hand on her knee. She thinks it might be accidental, like when "someone squeezing behind your seat at the movies brushes your hair or, falling in a bus, catches your shoulder" (56). One of the funniest scenes in the novel occurs when, after her well-developed fantasy of physical contact, she learns his hand is in actuality an empty glove that has fallen from the dash. However, the father does step beyond the line of acceptable behavior as he seemingly flirts with her and plays into her game. When they arrive home, he actually does place his hand on her knee. He keeps her from getting out of the car until she agrees to visit him at his studio. In a later scene, he invites her to lunch at his private studio. Celine is flattered, so much so that the next day she stays within close proximity of the phone and keeps the bathroom door open during her shower to ensure she hears the ring. When he doesn't call, she is "intensely relieved and crushed" (61). She likes the attention but knows that "he is about five times older than [her]; he is married and has a little paunch hanging over his belt" and thus is not the man for her (59). Jake's father, however, should be mature enough to know he should not make a pass at her. Celine later ponders sexual relationships and comes up with an interesting list of questions:But there is one thing I have never understood. The central mystery of sex. And that is: How does it ever finally happen? I used to wonder at the movies. Here would be this man and this woman being chased by the Nazis, and in the next scene they're making love, with the Gestapo practically on the doorstep. How does it connect? What has this to do with the plot? With life? How did it come up in the conversation? It defies imagination. My imagination, anyway. (138)
She intelligently addresses the fantasy versus reality of sex that many adolescents (and adults) have come to question.
In traditional Cole fashion, the humor of Celine is abundant and amazingly fun. Celine sees the world through laughing eyes, and as a reader, I love her for it. She is especially fascinated with television and spends much of her free time flipping channels to see the topics of concern in the world. Her approach is random. Once her grandmother tried to encourage her to plan her viewing by using a TV Guide. Celine admits that:I tried [to use it], but I felt like a fool. It's one thing to watch Dallas and Dynasty, but it's another to plan to watch them. I mean, when a bum goes through the dumpster behind McDonald's, he doesn't plan what he's going to eat. Maybe he likes it to be a surprise. I am like that bum. A sort of bag lady of television. I just like to see what I'll find. (11)
And find, she does. One day, she and Jake watch a news special on nuclear plant safety. Celine explains to him that the central issue of the show was whether or not operators should have to "pee in a bottle," (39) and about ethical questions that are raised by the demand. She admits, then: "I sneak a look at Jake to see if any of this loose talk about peeing in a bottle and trust is corrupting him, but I think he is falling asleep" (39). The social commentary her insights bring forth is amusing and true; "she makes complete sense of the paradox of bright children addicted to rubbish" (Freed 23).
The Facts Speak for Themselves
Cole's recent young adult novel, The Facts Speak for Themselves, powerfully describes the painful life of thirteen-year-old Linda. When the novel opens, Linda is being questioned about a murder she has witnessed. Her social worker documents her case, but Linda disagrees with her version and wishes to tell her own. We learn that her mother cares little for Linda and her two younger siblings, none of whom have the same father, and that Linda's father committed suicide when she was younger. Her story continues with the description of her mother's marriage to a senior citizen named Arthur, his stroke, and Linda's role as caregiver for the man when her mother leaves them behind. When she is reunited with her mother, she meets Frank, her mother's new fling. Her mother now works for a man named Jack, who not only has his perverse eye on Linda but succeeds in wooing her into a sexual relationship. Because Jack is a realtor, they can rendezvous in the houses he has on the market; soon they set up a "love nest" in an apartment Jack has secretly removed from the available housing lists. Eventually Frank discovers their affair and fatally shoots Jack. Linda ends up in a home for girls where she undergoes therapy.
Self-Reliant Adolescents and Resigned Parents
The self-reliance Linda demonstrates in The Facts Speak for Themselves is admirable and frightening, a contrast not so strongly seen in the two other novels. This thirteen-year-old girl is fully responsible for herself and her siblings; her mother does nothing to support or care for them. At one point, Linda gets so desperate for food and diapers that she tries to trade a desk lamp for some TV dinners at the 7-Eleven (46). A law student overhears her request and escorts Linda home. When they arrive, they find the mother "spaced out in bed and Stoppard in a diaper that [Linda] dried out over the heat vent and then used again. And no food in the cupboard" (46). Linda's mother never fulfills her role as a parent. When Linda returns home after taking care of Arthur, the older man rejected by her mother, her first concern is her little brother. She tells us:I was glad to see Stoppard again. I strip-searched him the first chance I got. He was clean enough on the outside but filthy underneath. I said my god, don't you ever change your underwear? This is all I got, he said. I gave him a bath and put him in some of mine. He didn't want to wear girls' but I said no arguments. In the morning I got up early and walked to the Krogers. I bought him brand- new underpants. Fruit of the Loom. With my own money. A package of three pair for four sixty-nine. (131-2)
This young person has assumed more responsibility for her family in a few years than her mother has in her lifetime.
The adults in The Facts Speak for Themselves are appallingly selfish, more so than even the adults in The Goats and in Celine. Linda's mother is especially deplorable. When Arthur, the senior citizen she has married, has his stroke, she refuses to take care of him. Her plan is to go to the gas station and call 911. She claims, "the police will come and they'll take better care of Arthur than we ever could. It's for his own good" (95). When Linda refuses to leave, her mother slaps her and goes without her. When the two are reunited, the mother demands any money Linda has left from her days with Arthur, then goes out on the town, spending every penny while her children live in a hovel and have barely enough to get by (136-8). Jack is also not a truly adult figure; his decision to sleep with Linda is unforgivable.
Darkness and Humor in Three Novels by Brock Cole
Probably the greatest difference in Cole's three novels is demonstrated by his treatment of sexuality in The Facts Speak for Themselves. In this case, the sexual content is blatantly realistic. It is certainly not pure or innocent, as seen in The Goats, or even fantastic, as seen in Celine. It is harsh. However, despite the graphic nature of the sex in this novel, Cole is powerful in his honesty. When Linda loses her virginity to Jack, she tells us flatly:We went upstairs and pulled the covers off a bed. I let him do what he wanted. I won't even tell you. I turned my head so I wouldn't have to watch. When he went inside me I didn't like it. I hit him. I said hurry up. You don't even know what you're doing. (153)
The matter-of-fact presentation of these details "suggests the tenuous grip she has on the emotional dynamite she'd like to smother" (Budin 131). Linda's resistance to acknowledge the ugly reality is made even clearer when the case worker tries to convince Linda she has been raped. Linda has thoughts of her own, as evidenced by this scene, in which the case worker asks her questions about the rape:I felt sick at my stomach. As if I was going to throw up. I said you are not helping me feel any better. She said I'm not supposed to make you feel better. I'm supposed to help you confront what happened. You were raped. Now you know it. That's why you feel so bad, Linda. (154-155)
In Linda's case, Cole goes beyond adolescent sexual attraction to examine weightier issues, those of motive and power, manipulation and victimization.
In reading The Facts Speak for Themselves, I was surprised to see glimmers of Cole's typical humor and insight in the midst of such squalor and sadness. Indeed, it exists and does much to keep the story alive and not bogged down in the heaviness of life. For example, when Linda goes to the birthday party for Jack's daughter, Elizabeth, she finds Jack's wife in the kitchen cooking. Linda describes her in a way that demonstrates the kind of woman she is. She tells us the wife "never came out of the kitchen during the whole party...she is a strange person who cooks all the time. She had on an old apron and her hair was coming down in sweaty loops. I thought she was the caterer" (145). Although this humor is a bit rough around the edges, it is suitable for the tone of the novel, and does much to further characterization. Perhaps we have a clearer understanding as to why Jack would seek out Linda in the first place. In addition, Linda gives us a humorous glimpse into the lives of the Seymours, a couple for whom she babysits. She tells us:They are nice people. Mrs. Seymour is into coupons and keeps them in a special box on the kitchen counter. They are arranged according to expiration date, and she grabs a handful when she goes to the store. Mr. Seymour thinks she buys things they don't need. For example, a twenty-five pound bag of dog chow.
We don't even have a dog, he says.
It's a gift, Arnold, she says.
I don't know yet (158).
These small episodes lend comic relief to an otherwise heavy story.
Conclusion: Brock Cole's Good, Bad, and Humorously Ironic
Brock Cole writes meaningful and honest stories that share common elements. In each of his young adult novels, he presents young people who not only rise to the occasion, but often do so with greater success than the adults around them. He addresses his characterization of grown-ups in his claim, "I do like adults. I just don't think that they have to be prettied up for young adult consumption. There's a tendency for the institutional market to want young adult novels that present adults as a little more powerful, a little stronger, a little better than they really are. And they're a little disappointed when adults are shown as merely human" (in Rochman 441). It is this human quality that makes Cole's characters, both young and old, people with whom we can empathize. Each character is "realistically vulnerable, uncertain, flawed--human" (Hearne 76). Another common strand in his works is his honest treatment of sexuality. He recognizes that desire, passion, and curiosity are not limited to those over twenty-one. Finally, Cole's works share a wonderful use of humor. His words and images help us see ourselves and our world as it truly is: often ironic, always interesting. Cole paints the world as it is; instead of using soft pastels, he whips out the bright, bold, and sometimes ugly hues.
Wendy J. Glenn is a doctoral student in the English Education program at Arizona State University, and a full-time teacher at Dobson High School, Mesa, Arizona
Reference Citation: Glenn, Wendy J. (1999). "Brock Cole: The Good, the Bad, and the Humorously Ironic." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 2, pp. 26-29.