reviewed by Jonah Kruvant
Matthew Quick’s new novel, Boy21, is a tale of an unlikely friendship. Finley McManus lives with his father and grandfather in the poor, mafia-controlled town of Bellmont, outside of Philadelphia. He enjoys stargazing on the roof of his house with his girlfriend, Erin, and playing point guard for his high school basketball team. Finley’s life takes an unexpected turn when Russ Allen, a boy with supposed supernatural basketball abilities, moves to Bellmont, who also plays point guard, and even wears Finley’s number, 21. Russ’s parents died in a tragic car accident and hasn’t touched a basketball ever since. Yet the coach of the team asks Finley to befriend Russ and convince him to play, even though by doing so, Finley may be jeopardizing his position on the team.
A tight bond grows between these two teenagers, both of whom are struggling to deal with the loss of their parents. Quick gives us Russ’s story from the beginning: his parents were murdered. Finley’s tragedy, however, is more mysterious: we know something happened to his mother, but we don’t know what. Yet both characters deal with their losses in similar ways. Russ, in a shameless, sometimes-disturbing and sometimes-funny display, pretends to be an alien, Boy21 from the cosmos, sent to earth to gather scientific information on emotions. Finley rarely speaks, communicating with his eyes as often as his mouth. Both characters are struggling to communicate with the outside world and deal with the pain and suffering of loss, so they put on a persona, whether it is an alien from the cosmos, or a minimalist speaker. As Finley puts it, “Maybe we were both playing roles just to get by” (223).
Both class and race are examined through the use of setting and character. The mafia controls Bellmont, and Finley stresses how easy it is for people to get stuck there and never leave. The town is overwhelmingly African American, but with a strong Irish minority, which holds a powerful presence in the town through the Irish mob. Part of the beauty of the friendship between Finley, white Irish, and Boy21, African American, is that they see past their racial differences. It is as if the oppressiveness of the town, and the tragedies of their pasts, have not only brought these characters together, but have allowed them to see beyond racial stereotypes.
Boy21 takes you for a ride. Without revealing too much, it brings you in a direction you don’t expect. Characters both surprise and disappoint Finley. The reader can’t help but feel for these kids with tragedies in their past, stuck in an impoverished town, just trying to stay safe, let alone deal with the loss of their parents.
The political, cultural, and economic dimensions of Boy21 are partly explored. The reader sympathizes with the characters, particularly the struggling teens, Finley, Boy21, and Erin. For literary lovers, Quick makes references to both classic fiction, such as Updike’s Rabbit, Run, to contemporary works, such as Harry Potter. It is a quick read, sparse in its prose, yet surprisingly complex. Boy21 is a novel emotionally charged, and at times, humorous. It could be classified as a coming-of-age novel but it certainly contains adult themes. I would recommend Boy21 to space enthusiasts, basketball lovers, teenagers, and adults alike.