CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 7 . . . . November 24, 2006
Chill, a mildly handicapped, popular high school student, runs afoul of new English teacher Mr. Sfinkter, who is widely detested because of his constant humiliation of students in class. This situation puts Chill in conflict with his best friend Sean, who is enamored by Sfinkter's promises to help him become a published writer. When Sfinkter demands that Chill "pick up" his bad leg when walking to the front of the class, Chill's anger turns to revenge. An aspiring artist, he secretly changes the design of a school mural he is painting to include a demonic Sfinkter destroying the dreams of students. At the disastrous unveiling ceremony, all involved - including Sean, who feigns guilt when he realizes that Chill was right about Sfinkter all along - are questioned by the principal. When the questioning turns to Sfinkter's behaviour, the teacher collapses from stress. Chill performs CPR, saving him, and the boys’ punishment is limited to redoing the mural while Sfinkter announces his retirement from teaching.
In this, his first novel, Frizzell reaches deep into the psyche of high school students to reach their yearnings for recognition, respect, and occasional revenge on those who don't give it to them. The effect is meant to be appealing and redeeming to teens, and, in this, it is partially successful.
The plot is decent, with a subtle enough build-up to the climax (the unveiling), and a smooth transition to the dénouement. Writing quality is a little uneven, but, at its best, it respectfully emulates the voice of a teen (narrator Sean) quite well, such as in Sean's unsentimental observation that all teens have to find their own way to "survive" high school. The excerpt, above, shows how Frizell occasionally punctuates Sean's observations with particularly biting satire. Often, however, the writing is a bit awkward, and dramatic moments seem out of focus.
Characterization is similarly uneven. Chill is well portrayed - laid-back, self-effacing, confident in his own way; and the moral ambiguity of Chill's act is presented as just that. Sean's writing aspirations are not entirely believable, but his ignorance of Mr. Sfinkter's manipulation of these aspirations - obvious to the reader - provides much-needed irony. Sfinkter, however, is so blatantly a villain as to be stereotypical. He is so one-dimensionally authoritarian that, as Sean complains, he interprets Romeo and Juliet as a warning to young people not to disobey their elders! And the name Sfinkter? It might be better to be spelled Sfeinkter, to be believably European.
As part of Orca's “Soundings” imprint, the 3.5 reading level of this book means that it is difficult, even for an experienced writer, to convey the complex world of teenagehood with the degree of satisfaction that we get from "regular" teen fiction. Difficult, but not impossible, and it raises the question of whether Orca might be better to experiment with unorthodox story formats outside novel narrative - prose poetry, document collections, diaries, etc - in order to reach the reluctant audience with something that can convey depth in fewer words.
Recommended with reservations.
Todd Kyle, a former President of the Canadian Association of Children's Librarians, is currently a library branch manager in Mississauga, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.