This novel was sent to me as a required reading for an ongoing William & Mary course I am taking in teaching Young Adult High-Interest literature. I have to be honest, when I opened the package and saw this, I thought, "Yuck. A boy book." The good thing about YA lit though is if it is an engaging plot line, then it is a quick read. I was engaged, I finished the book in two days.
(Side note: The other night on "Jeopardy," there was a contestant that said his goal for the past three years had been to read 100 books in one year. The first year he didn't do it. The second year, he decided to blog about each book he read and still didn't make it. He accomplished the goal the third year he tried. Alex Tribeck told him to "Try reading shorter books." He suggested Dr. Seuss. I suggest YA!)
The novel takes place in a depressed ghetto area outside of Philadelphia. The politics of the town are controlled by the black gangs selling drugs and the Irish mob, of which no one speaks. The protagonist, Finley, is a high school Senior who has two loves in his life- basketball and his girlfriend, Erin. He and Erin train and practice for basketball season year-round. During the season each year though, they break up because Finley cannot be distracted from the sport. Erin is the star of her basketball team. Finley is not; as the only white player on his team, he takes pride in his role of leading assists. He is a self-professed quiet kid, which stems from a tragic childhood event ending with the death of his mother and his grandfather becoming legless and wheelchair-bound.
The coach visits Finley one night to tell him about a new student starting their school, Russ. He was the son of coach's close friends that lived across the country, in California, who were recently murdered. Russ would be coming to live with his grandparents in Finley's neighborhood and coach wanted Finley to befriend Russ feeling that he would be sensitive to what Russ was going through. Back in California, Russ was the only black player on his prep school basketball team... and he was skilled. The NBA, as well as top college scouts, were looking forward to his senior year on the courts. This was Finley's secret to keep. Russ would change his name to allow him to hide from the press as long as possible as he mourned his parents' death and adjusted to his new life. The coach hoped Finely would encourage Russ to join their basketball team, which causes a great dilemma to arise- Russ not only played the same position as Finley but also shared the same jersey number, 21.
When Finley meets Russ, however, he insists that he be called "Boy21" and that he was sent from outer space to investigate the emotions of Earthlings but would be returning to the great beyond with his parents soon.
The novel explores many conflicts through several characters. It is unexpected that such great emphasis is given to the title character throughout the novel's development, then in the final chapters he comes plays a secondary role as Finley is faced with a conflict that makes him question all that he's held important in life. There is a Hamlet-esque tone to the narrative as Finley debates whether Boy21 is truly insane of just faking his alien persona to keep anyone from getting close to his tragedy. A real teen voice comes across in the different character conflicts Finley must face- whether missing his girlfriend during basketball season when he could easily revoke the temporary breakup, or the moral dilemma of wanting to help Russ and please coach, but not lose his starting position on the basketball team.
Another part of the novel that resonated with me and I think is a good commentay on teen life reminded me of the dance scene from the 80's movie, "Can't Buy Me Love." The school nerd pays the most popular chick to pretend to be his girlfriend, and given his new status, all the things he did that were considered dorky before, become trend-setting. This includes the night that thinking he was watching a dance show, he learned "The African Ant Eater Ritual" and all the school kids were flailing like him on the gym floor. In the novel, Russ manages to hide his his "Secret, Boy 21" identity until the night he makes it into the basketball game and flies across the court to dunk like Michael Jordan. He becomes such the school hero that the kids who once harassed him find it eccentric that he wears a cape and glittered helmet to school once his "identity" is revealed.
This is a good novel. It's a good "Boy Read," which are hard to come by, but I think it achieves that while still being attractive to all YA readers. It touches upon varied teen issues and conflicts with a more comical hand and later with a real punch in the gut.