WINGER by Andrew Smith – Review by Gregory Taylor
I like guy books. I guess that makes sense; I’m a guy. In fact, I’m a junior high guybrarian, so when I find a new guy book I get a little professional thrill because I know I’ve got something that can lure the too-cool-for-books boys into its pages and spit them out the other end asking for more.
But here’s the thing: I’d devour those guy books anyway, even if it weren’t my job to track them down for the kids. In true Nerdy fashion, I spent a lot of my own boyhood reading. I didn’t play team sports; instead I was in choir, and several accelerated classes. I had my guy friends, but I had plenty of female friends, too. So maybe part of the guy-book appeal for me is a sense of missed opportunities: team mates and locker room talk, sleepovers and stupid dares, fast cars and best buds with slow social skills. My own teen years didn’t look like that.
So when I find something like Carter Finally Gets It by Brent Crawford, a book so deliciously raunchy it has a tongue-in-cheek warning on the cover, I gleefully inhale its lunkish charm (I might have even choked up a bit at the end of the third Carter book – but that was probably just something in my eye). When I discover a book like Painting the Black by Carl Deuker, a baseball story that’s really about the amazing friendship between two players, I scoop it into my mitt like I’m a superstar shortstop. And when I stumble upon a gem like Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach, a story that’s funny, and sad, and frustrating, and hopeful, and feels so real, well, that’s when I’m glad there are guys who write brilliant guy books.
[ Go read Geoff Herbach’s Nerdy post from a couple weeks ago, about why he wrote Stupid Fast. Seriously, go ahead. I’ll wait. ]
Winger, Andrew Smith’s latest book, called to me with all its boyish swagger the moment I saw it on the shelf. Ryan Dean West, the scrappy protagonist known to his rugby teammates as Winger, scowls out from the cover, stitches over one eyebrow, bloody tissue up one nostril, his schoolboy uniform all askew. (I’m also a sucker for boarding school stories, from Looking for Alaska to The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, but that’s a post for another day.)
Ryan Dean West is academically gifted, already a junior at Pine Mountain despite being just fourteen years old and 142 pounds. Unfortunately, that makes him two years younger – and smaller – than all of his friends and classmates. In his own words, a “skinny-ass loser.” Due to a minor crime against the school’s rules he’s been reassigned to Opportunity Hall, the dorm for the school’s troublemakers. His new roommate is Chas Becker, a senior on the rugby team who Ryan Dean describes as a “friendless jerk” who is “big as a tree, and every bit as smart.” Right away on page one, two guys from the football team have Ryan Dean upside down with his head in a toilet, just because. And on top of everything, Ryan Dean has a crush on his friend Annie Altman, who sees him as nothing more than a cute, likeable kid, a running partner and conversation companion.
On the plus side, Ryan Dean can run like the wind, which allowed him to make the varsity rugby team as a thirteen-year-old sophomore, playing wing. His teammates usually call him Winger, rather than Ryan Dean. And he’s wicked smart, polite, and pretty good at talking to adults, so the actual school part of his school life is smooth sailing most of the time.
I loved reading the story of Winger’s junior year at Pine Mountain because he’s the bookish nerd who takes school seriously (like I was), and he’s the varsity jock (like I wished I could be). He’s the scrawny guy that gets bullied by the football players, and he’s the tough rugby player who isn’t afraid to get hit, on or off the field. He’s the young, inexperienced, sexually frustrated kid, and he’s the cute, kind young man that gets the attention of his lunkhead roommate’s hot girlfriend.
Winger has many of the guy-book tropes I love: Winger’s crush on a girl who likes him, but not that way; a couple best-bud/teammates who have Winger’s back no matter what (unless…?); a late-night poker session in the dorm where Chas forces Winger to drink way too much, and the painfully detailed, horribly hungover day to follow; locker room banter full of insults and boasts, often covering genuine affection (or seething hatred).
It also has a few guy-book moments I wasn’t expecting, but that I loved just as much: the jar of Winger’s urine, stashed in his upper bunk for no real reason until just the right moment comes along; the handsome, generous, easy-going rugby teammate Joey, who happens to be gay; Ryan Dean’s appealing drawings and cartoons, sprinkled throughout the text; the cathartic, nearly naked run through the rain as the Wild Boy of Bainbridge Island.
Andrew Smith has crafted a great story that hooks us in with laughs and gross-outs and hijinks, but then sneaks in the deeper truths about how to live a life. Winger suffers fools, makes mistakes, laments his shortcomings, rages against injustices, and ultimately does the best he can. Winger may be a fourteen-year-old skinny-ass loser, but he’s my kind of guy.
Gregory Taylor is the librarian at Hillside Junior High School in Boise, Idaho and teaches a summer grad class in Young Adult Literature at Boise State University. He tweets @bookhouseboy and his YouTube channel is bookhouseboy15.