Paul Vanderman could be at any normal high school where bullies, girls, and annoying teachers are just part of life. But 'normal' doesn't apply when it comes to the school's biggest bully, Roth - a twisted and threatening thug with an evil agenda.
When Paul ends up delivering a message from Roth to the leader of a gang at a nearby school, it fuels a rivalry with immediate consequences. Paul attempts to distance himself from the feud, but somehow Roth keeps finding reasons for him to stick around. Then one day Roth hands him a knife. And even though Paul is scared, he has never felt so powerful.
Paul is a rare discovery; one that has managed to stay firmly under the radar in his school where the powerful pray on the weak. Except on this one day when he's sitting in class, minding his own buisness, and Roth--aka Your Worst Nightmare--starts having his cronies fling gum in his hair (y'know, cuz he's bored). This causes a confrontation, our boy gets sent to the principal, and this all eventually leads to another confrontation with Bully Boy that ends with him having to deliver drugs to another Bully Boy and this leads to, of course, his confrontation with the Knife That Killed (Him).
There really is something different in McGowen's writing. I don't know what it is, but its there and its engrossing as hell. I started the thing with an expectancy that it would be one of those Serious Issue type books, with a nice little ending and some Food for Thought to tie it up. For some reason, however, it really, really wasn't.
We know right away that our hero's going to die; I mean, he begins this tale describing in detail the knife that killed him. A grand, ancient knife that had killed many greats before him except wait, no, thats not his knife at all. The knife that killed him was a plain old kitchen knife, probably used to chop up some celery or something a mere hours before. There's nothing special about his killer, just like there's nothing special about him. The only thing worth noting is how he got there, how he got here, in this empty land with a knife that will never reach him, always getting halfway farther, halfway farther, but never there. This is the story being told, so there are no surprises, because we know our boy is dead on arrival.
We have three central characters; of course there's Paul, there's Roth, and there's this dude Shane, who seems to be a better version of Paul; avoiding the hunt-or-be-hunted circle by being the leader of the "freaks", yet somehow cool enough to avoid the ill-will that befalls most of his deciples (or sorts). These two, Roth and Shane, offer, or maybe stand for, the two ways Paul could go. He could go down Roth's road, end up how he did, end up with the knife that killed him (trust me, you'll never forget that title...every other paragraph has a knife motif somewhere in there...it was a bit distracting), or he could go where you'd like to pretend you'd go, with Shane and the untouchable freaks, no one cares and they get through the day without a knife in their gut. He could go down that way, but he doesn't, he goes with Roth and the worst part is that you know, down to your gut, that you would too. And I think McGowen touched a sensitive topic, there.
The characters might have been carictatures and they probably were, depending on how you looked at them. Calculating villain with, like, two possible expressions (Roth), corrupt authority figures who succeed in being both ineffective and contributive to the problem (teachers), Attic Finch-like moral-high-ground-dweller (Shane), doomed innocent caught in the crossfire between two eeeeevil forces (Paul). But while reading this book, that thought never crossed my mind. It wasn't till I was retelling the tale to my bffl Gabby that she pointed out the shallowness of their characters. But then I told her it wasn't like that, no at all, you have to read it (except she couldn't cause I got it for a book tour and needed to send it out, but thats beside the point). You seriously do need to read it, make your own opinion (similar to Avatar, which I bring up because I'm sick of people who haven't seen it calling it a cheap remake of Dances With Wolves...that's a story for another day).
As someone once said, probably my mother, "If this is the future, we are doomed". And its true, really. As I've said, Paul's school--fuck, his entire life--seems to be a desolate wasteland without love or comfort or warmth. You are either being shoved into a wall, or you are doing the shoving. But for the rare few like Shane and Paul himself, there are no exceptions. It scared the shit out of me. At first, I thought maybe this was a British thing (it takes place in England, I'm assuming, since there's a shitload of Britishy words thrown around), then I thought McGowen was being dramatic, over-polarizing so we'd have a definitive good v. evil, or maybe he wanted me scared out of my mind. Or maybe this was an accident. I don't know, I don't want to know. All I know is that anything that can have that kind of effect on a reader without being in the horror section deserves your respect.
Rating: oh man, I don't know. I want to say a 7, but I also want to say a 20. When I finished it, it was a 20 but, like always, upon further analization it got tocked down to a 7, and C-. Oh, I don't know. It didn't suck.