I am apparently growing worryingly obsessed with Andrew Smith. I read another of his novels — Grasshopper Jungle — first, and I loved it. Then I read Winger. The synopsis on Amazon will tell you that Winger is about a fourteen-year-old boy named Ryan Dean West (Ryan Dean is his whole first name, by the way) navigating life in a rich boarding school while dealing with a bully, being in love with his best friend Annie, and other such high school shenanigans.
I stayed up until 4 AM reading it and it was absolutely devastating. But also infuriating. Here’s why, in randomly organized bullet point format. HUGE HUGE SPOILER WARNING for the book’s twist ending, as well as a few other plot points along the way.
- Ryan Dean is a first name parents give to their child only if they hate said child. For a character in a novel, though, it’s a perfect name. Characters addressing the protagonist with his full first name every time they speak to him is comic gold. “Ryan Dean.”
- Ryan Dean’s rugby friend, Joey Cosentino, is a beautiful human being. Based on the way he acted throughout the book, I started picturing him as Richie from Looking, which only made him more endearing. His death at the end was horrifically traumatic because of this and I will never forgive Smith for writing it (by “never forgive,” I mean I won’t right up until I start reading the rest of his bibliography).
- Winger started out okay; I liked 90% of it. Meaning, I was a total fan of what the book appeared to be at first, but I did not enjoy how the overall theme was twisted in the end to fit a more dour denouement. I respect the message, but I don’t think it fit with the overall tone of the novel, nor did it do justice to the characters featured. (This is going to be continued in the next blurb so my bullet points don’t get too long.)
- The way I see it, and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but Smith was trying to say this: People can blend perfectly into a crowd of peers seemingly in every single which way, save for one minute detail — a detail which everyone and their wheelchair-bound grandmother will laser in on. Ryan Dean manages to escape his detail, “being younger than everyone else,” by maturing from an adolescent to young man (this escape is facilitated by Ryan Dean’s entering into a relationship with his best friend/crush Annie, a girl who is treated less like a character and more as a metaphor — more on that later.) For Joey, the detail, “being gay” eats him alive and leads to his death. I’m not sure how these two messages fit together in the end. I guess, sometimes the detail goes away, and sometimes it’s so glaring that it doesn’t? Something about it doesn’t sit well with me.
- Many reviews tout this book as an ultra-realistic portrayal of an adolescent teenage existence. In reality, it’s a wet fever dream of a fourteen-year-old living in an all-boys dorm.
- Two out of the three teenage female characters featured in this novel are super into the main character. Like, they want to go all the way. (This could easily be tacked onto Number Five, but let’s just treat this as a separate issue.) In other words, the female characters in this book could do with some fleshing out in order to feel less like they’re used for the protagonist to level up in the game of Sexual Education (patent pending).
- Mrs. Singer was appropriately spooky. I’m a fan of “is-she-or-isn’t-she-a-witch” plots. It’s like “will-they-won’t-they”, but way more dramatic and traumatic and interesting. She was like all three of those things.
- As I said earlier, the story is not nearly as realistic as advertised, but I’m okay with that. It leads to absolutely solid gold dialogue. The back and forth between Ryan Dean and Annie soars because of the sass they exchange.
- I originally read this without realizing it was written by the author of a separate book I enjoyed, so I was actually drawn in by the B-plot involving rugby. I have an odd fascination with rugby. The passages describing rugby in this book did not alleviate the ailment in any way. According to the novel, rugby in Southern California is a joke, so if I had ever gotten into it back in school I would have been trapped with losers.
- I read this book cover-to-cover over seven hours while hopped on various flu medications. I am irrationally emotional about it while simultaneously conflicted about the ending. As I said, I don’t know if all the themes and tones adequately gel in the end — but I was entertained enough, I thought it was pretty good overall, and I will definitely read more Smith books. Like, right now. While still on medication. All night. Tissues, stat — shit’s about to get fah-reeky.