Writing coming-of-age novels is tricky. Like riding a bicycle down a stretch of bad road, there are numerous cracks in the pavement to trip up the unwary author. In his first novel, "Huge," author James W. Fuerst successfully pilots his Schwinn Stingray down the street, but not without hitting a few dips and potholes along the way.
"Huge" is a fanciful tale about Eugene Smalls, an undersized preteen with oversized anger management issues. For most of the book he struts around like an adolescent peacock with a chip on his shoulder the size of a Buick, making everyone's life thoroughly miserable -- including his own. Despite his protestations that his true nickname is "Huge, " Genie, as everyone calls him, spends the summer prior to starting middle school trying to channel Philip Marlowe: "Her wig was putty-colored and mangled and tilted too far to the right, and she'd forgotten to pencil in an eyebrow over her left eye. The whole effect was like her head was sliding off to one side. She looked smaller than usual, crooked. But at least she had her teeth in."
Fuerst's playful use of Chandleresque language is lots of fun and his nod to the classic detective novels of the past works as a frame on which to hang his story. Unfortunately, as a character, protagonist Genie Smalls doesn't really hold together. For one thing, it takes way too long for us to start caring about him. Having a father who splits and leaves the family in the lurch evokes empathy, but most of the other trauma and woe that falls upon his head is trivial and self-inflicted. He's not starving or homeless: He's a straight-A student; he even has a mother, a sister, and a grandmother who love him to death. When contrasted with a character like Huck Finn whose only relative is his "pap" who gets drunk and beats the crap out of him, Genie seems positively privileged. Furthermore, his language, age and his supposed huge IQ don't match his actions. He's a genius and a loner with a foul mouth, big fists and no friends who nonetheless rides the coolest bike known to man -- which he made himself from spare parts. He has an imaginary friend in the form of a stuffed frog named "Thrash" and he's read Thoreau's "Walden" four times. It's like Fuerst is trying to meld Holden Caufield and Sam Spade, but what comes out is G.I Joe with Mr. Potato Head features.
The author creates the arc of a decent story. There is a mystery that gets solved and a main character who grows up... sort of. However, the book suffers greatly from its ambivalence with regard to time and place: "Then it was the usual stuff about the activities they'd done last week (a day trip down to the horse races at Monmouth Park) and (a day trip down to the casinos in Atlantic City)." Thus, the story obviously takes place in New Jersey, but Fuerst never bothers to make it clear why the story takes place in New Jersey. Moreover, the clues Fuerst gives as to when the story takes place are few and contradictory. For example, Genie rides a Schwinn Stingray with raised handle bars and a banana seat (the 60s) and one character drives an IROC Z-28 muscle car, (the 80s), but his high school cohorts all take steroids, tag buildings and play computer games.
The dialogue, too, is all over the map, as in this exchange between two teens commenting on Genie's character:
"See, the little dude is chilly to the bone," Sticky said. "My younger bro wouldn't do that for me."
"Dude," Darren chimed in, "You saw how he ransacked Razor's jewels; little dude fears no fear."
Perhaps the weakest aspect of the book is its strange treatment of sex and violence. Sex is both casual and kinky. Genie's older sister Neecy not only teases him by parading around in the nude, but also encourages him to hide in her closet and spy on her best friend Cynthia while she's dressing.
As they are central to Genie's character, anger and violence are both pervasive in the book as well. But once again, Fuerst seems unclear whether Genie's penchant for pugilism is a flaw or an asset. "I'd had plenty of black eyes before. Some kids collected baseball cards, some hoarded mint-condition coins, others stamps; I collected shiners. It was a hobby of mine; I was good at it. Damn good."
Despite its flaws, "Huge" is entertaining and fun to read. If I was looking for a little light rainy weather reading, with a little casual middle school sex, violence and obscenity (OK: a lot of obscenity), then "Huge" would be a great choice. If, on the other hand, I was seeking a novel that made me think and touched me on a deeper emotional level, I think I'd give it a pass. Cruising down the street on a Schwinn Stingray is the essence of cool. Hitting potholes and plot-holes, not so much.