Matthew Quick's prior novels focus on damaged characters that end up relying on their network of friends and family to overcome emotional as well as practical problems. Be it his adult debut The Silver Linings Playbook: A Novel (soon to be a major motion picture directed by David O. Russell and starring Bradley Cooper) or his Young Adult debut Sorta Like a Rock Star, Quick crafts unique voices that carry readers through tribulations.
It is important to understand this -- despite what you may believe you prefer in a good book (plot, romance, drama, humor) none of it matters if the VOICE doesn't work. If the narrator irritates you or lies to you or withholds information without reason, you may become frustrated. If you understand what the narrator cares about -- even if they keep secrets -- you will be engaged.
In Boy21, Quick continues his tradition of troubled characters with strong voices. A self-professed 'minimal speaker' (he literally responds with nods and gestures early on, but does speak), main character Finley is harboring a tragedy that occurred before the first page of the novel. He loses himself in the rituals of basketball and his loving, true relationship with Erin. We know from page one what and who he cares about, and it's one of the prime rules of fiction: show the reader what the character cares about and the reader will care, too.
Set in the fictional town of Belmont -- a blue collar Philly suburb populated by Irish and African Americans -- Finley has no sense of the possibilities of the world. Basketball, family, Erin -- these are the things that matter. Or, simply the things that exist and do not wound.
Quick then introduces the brilliant, fascinating titular character: Boy21. The setup involves Finley being asked to mentor Boy21 as he transitions from a well-to-do lifestyle in California after a tragedy of his own, but doing so risks Finley's basketball season and his relationship with Erin. Because Boy21 believes something crazy. About outer space. I can't give more away without truly ruining some of the first few scenes of Boy21's appearance in the novel -- but it is hilarious and nearly surreal.
To be clear: this is not a sports book. It's easy to say but needs to be stressed since reading about sports can be a dull experience for non-sports fans. As with The Silver Linings Playbook (where football dominates the main character's mind but not the plot), basketball here is part of the landscape and experience of the characters. It's important to them, but Quick isn't forcing us to read about 4 periods of HS basketball. I admire Quick's ability to describe sports in a way that makes fans and non-fans understand the true importance of the activities. It's not about whether Finley scores a winning shot or succeeds in practice. It's about Finley's need for a ritual to ensure he does not crumble beneath the stress of life, his town, and his tragedy.
The other strength in this and Quick's other novels is the spikes of humor. While not a comedy, plenty of images and dialogue exchanges had me laughing out loud. Like this: HA ha! or ha HA! or HAHA! While you are not asked to laugh at the mental health issues the characters suffer from, you are reminded through the humor that even the troubled, tragic people in this world exist on a day-to-day level. They can be depressed but smile; they can be sad but make a joke.
If you're already a fan of Quick's work -- even if you've only read Silver Linings -- this novel will definitely satisfy you. Adult readers have nothing to fear as there's a complexity to the structure of the novel that makes the book rewarding beyond the story (I mention this for people who might think Quick writes a simpler type of fiction for YA readers -- he doesn't.)
If you're new to Quick, you cannot go wrong by starting with Boy21 -- there's humor and truth and love and conversations that have to be re-read to be appreciated. I suspect lots of readers will start here and happily jump to Silver Linings or Sorta Like a Rock Star. Huzzah!