In the last couple of weeks, I've read two books that were very guy-friendly and one thing that both of them had in common was how darn funny they were. First, I read Steven Goldman's Two Parties, One Tux, and a Very Short Film about the Grapes of Wrath, which had me laughing out loud at a couple of places. Then, I got to a book that made me laugh way more than a few times out loud: Blake Nelson's Destroy All Cars.
When I began Nelson's book, I was a little worried. I'd read a number of reviews that claimed it was nothing but a "liberal agenda set forth in teen fiction." While I don't mind a book with a political bent in any direction, this particular one had me a bit worried. Fortunately, Destroy All Cars was so not just an agenda.
James Hoff is a very angry teen, but not in the manner you'd suspect. Hoff spends his time railing against the factors that are destroying our planet, and more specifically, he spends significant time pointing out how much cars are ruining the planet with their emissions and their gas consumption. At 17, he is acutely aware of how important it is to cherish the environment and make strides against seeing it destroyed. How fitting, too, he lives in suburban Portland, Oregon, which allows this entire aspect of the plot to manifest quite well.
But James's story is not just about his anger at environmental destruction. Rather, this is a story about losing the first girl he ever had real feelings for: Sadie. She was his first real girlfriend for him he had real feelings, and the break up was hard for him. James spends a lot of time in his junior year thinking about other girls and who he can potentially have relationships with post-Sadie. Although we're briefly introduced to a few girls, it is quite clear he's not interested in anyone but Sadie. And why Sadie, you ask? Well, she, too, is quite concerned about the world and rallies for any number of causes.
The story chronicles James's interest in lambasting consumerist America and his interest in getting back together with Sadie.
Although the story itself sounds like something that's been done again and again, Nelson does something very unique with the structure of the book itself. It's told through James's point of view, but it's done so through a number of lenses. First, James shares his essay assignments for Mr. Cogweiller's English class and subsequent remarks from Cogweiller; throughout the book, we'll see that some essays are more successful than others and we'll see that some don't even get turned in. In addition to these very funny essays are James's journal entries, which in some cases include the dialog between himself and other characters. Splitting the story into different mediums of writing like this is very successful in this book, and it does a fantastic job of building James's character. We are also able to watch James develop in his writing and thinking, and we develop our own relationship with Cogweiller.
Perhaps what I liked most about Destroy All Cars was that the messages were valuable, but they were put in such a way that they were very, very funny. James and Sadie are both fighting for something valuable and important and understand how necessary it is to be aware of our environment. But, in James's case, his awareness manifests in anger and outrage that are so spot-on for his character. While I don't believe all 17-year-olds operate with his mindset, I think that a lot of how he acts and thinks is on par with that age group. He's not ridiculous nor is he stupid. He's passionate and inexperienced at the same time. James would be an easy character to dislike but as a reader, I really liked him and wanted to see him succeed. Nelson did a fantastic job of delineating him.
I think this is a book that guys would definitely like. It's not overly emotional, and the format makes it a very quick and easy read. It helps that James is relatable and very funny. Admittedly, I can see people being turned off by what they might see as an agenda in the book, but I don't think that's Nelson's point at all. In fact, I think that Destroy All Cars conveys the message that people in this age group are already aware of and concerned about, making it more appealing. Most of the book is clean, with little foul language, though about 3/4 through the book, things get a little sexual. It's not risque nor unexpected and it fits with the story.
One of the other reasons I liked this book so much was because it allowed me to think about myself and my own development. This book captures a 17-year-old so well, and it allowed me to think about who I was at that age and who I am now.