Where the Truth Lies
Bruce Brooks' The Moves Make The Man Dares To Take Young Adult Fiction Into The Vagaries Of Young Adult Life
I knew Ponyboy was a phony from his very first line: "When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home." Maybe 14-year-old greaser boys in late-1960s Tulsa, Okla., would swoon over Newman, but that's more the domain of teenage girls. Tellingly, that's exactly what S.E. Hinton was when she scribbled out The Outsiders, that unfairly lauded young adult novel that's long held a top spot on the list of oft-banned books beloved by disaffected kids--Go Ask Alice, The Catcher in the Rye, Flowers in the Attic, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret--less because they're great literature and more because cracking their spine in public will arch a few grownup eyebrows.
No matter how invigorating and liberated the comings and goings of Ponyboy's gang of hoodlums felt on first reading, revisiting The Outsiders as an adult is a disappointment, most of all in Hinton's styleless prose. Phrases such as "One time in biology I had to dissect a worm, and the razor wouldn't cut, so I used my switchblade" sound fresh and colloquial to a kid spying in on the mysterious, Dionysian world of teenage activity, but now clunk in adult ears like the chatter of a gum-chomper telling you all about her weekend. Most of the book is given to descriptions of one rumble or another in the endless conflict of greasers vs. socs, studded with small melodramas such as the rescue of children from an abandoned church--does such a thing exist in the Bible Belt?--set ablaze, or compatriot Dally's suicidal assault on the police. Once you're past 30, the book's most famous exhortation, whispered by the fatally burned Johnny-- "Stay gold, Ponyboy"--sounds like the easy, dreamy, and utterly hollow inspirational cry of an uncomplicated adolescent mind-set, just a step above in profundity from "You've got to fight for your right to party."
There are no easy conclusions like that in The Moves Make the Man, the 1984 debut novel by Bruce Brooks that, despite multiple awards--including the Newbery Honor award in recognition of exceptional children's literature--has become lost in the young adult shuffle. Maybe it's the sports theme that scares off a readership of mostly girls who don't want to read about two boys and their basketball games, but Brooks uses basketball and its inherent deceptions (you've got to know how to fake to win) as a backboard for bigger questions about truth, lies, and the flexible nature of honesty.
"Now, Bix Rivers has disappeared, and who do you think is going to tell his story but me?" declares Jerome Foxworthy in the novel's first sentence. He's talking about Braxton Rivers the Third, the ghost-faced white boy who became his best friend after Jerome spied him at a baseball game one summer night in the semi-integrated North Carolina of 1961. Jerome, who is on the other side of the town's color divide, has no patience for baseball. "Baseball!" he snorts. "Bunch of dudes in knee pants standing up straight and watching each other do very little." It's basketball Jerome loves, in all its speed and subterfuge, but Bix is appalled by lying in all its shades, whether it's crumbled Ritz crackers forming a mock apple pie or the fakes and bumps of Jerome's game. Jerome can't understand Bix's insistence on absolute truth. He loves his friend but gets the feeling there's something sick fueling Bix's fear--a hunch that's proven when, in the novel's tragic conclusion, Bix perpetrates the worst, cruelest fake of all.
What really renders The Moves Make the Man as better than the eerily congruent The Outsiders--both books are presented as a journal entry written by the last man standing, both inhabit a town divided by class or race, both honor the deep soulful friendship between outcast boys and suffer at the wrenching of that connection--isn't the vividity of Brooks' prose as compared to Hinton's, although he does get a few good licks in recording Jerome's sass. It's the way the novel conjures small, magical vignettes of the summer Jerome and Bix were blood brothers--the sparkle of multicolored sodas in an ice bucket, the "bammata" of the ball's dribble on a gymnasium floor, nighttime basketball games played on a secret court deep in the sheltering woods--that linger in the reader's memory. That's what makes Jerome's ambiguous, uncelebratory conclusion extra bittersweet: "The fact is--if you are faking, somebody is taking . . .There are no moves you truly make alone."
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