Disclaimer: I am friends with Carrie and I was a pre-reader for part of Perfectly Good White Boy while she was writing it. She gave me a copy of the books as a gift. I am not being compensated in anyway for this honest review.
Trigger Warnings: The book contains mentions of abortion, and has two scenes with graphic depictions of animal death. The r-word (ableist slur for people with intellectual disabilities and/or Down syndrome) is used twice in dialogue.
One of the things I love about realistic fiction is that it gives us an unfiltered view of life. Often that life is one that we have rarely seen portrayed authentically in fiction. In my opinion, realism in fiction is important, especially in a genre targeting young readers. That is not say that escapism is bad or of a lesser quality, but that both are needed to give readers the full spectrum view of life, the universe and everything.
Perfectly Good White Boy offers an authentic take on a working class poor teenage boy the likes of which I haven’t seen since The Outsiders. While this story doesn’t have the drama and high stakes of that YA classic, it never the less shows a teenage boy’s struggle from his own perspective in a humanizing way that I rarely see in popular YA fiction.
The Young Adult genre has its fair share of working class and impoverished boys, especially in romance. They are cast as the bad boys, the bikers and criminals in the romantic fantasies of young girls and women alike (they’re also common in m/m romance). However, these roles are more caricatures than fully realized human beings.
Sean is one of the most authentic teenage boys I’ve ever read in fiction. He reminds me a lot of Pony Boy in how his voice rings true to the teen boys I’ve known in my life. He has that flippant, foul-mouthed bluster a lot of boy use to cover up very real vulnerability and confusion. All the characters in the story have similarly authentic voices and together they weave the world of the story into something so believable it feels like you can almost touch it. That realism grounds the entire story and made it resonate with me on a very personal level.
The issues Sean deals with are very real too. His fractured family’s state of poverty, an alcoholic father and the looming specter of his future, but most of all his unhealthy relationship with his girlfriend Hallie. These are struggles many kids face everyday, I know I dealt with many when I was a teen. I found it interesting to see Sean navigate through life without magical help or unrealistic wisdom to guide him. He’s just a kid, making mistakes and bad choices, like we do. Eventually, after a lot of heartache and messiness, he learns from them.
He’s not alone in this journey. Neecie is a coworker turned friend, and eventually love interest who is on a similar place in her life. I liked Neecie a lot, not just because she has a disability. She is partial deaf and uses a hearing aid, but she also insist people face her when they talk so she can read their lips too. Her disability isn’t a focal point of the story, but the narrative doesn’t shy away from it either. Sean is a bit of an ignorant doofus about it at first, reflecting common attitudes and hyper focus people have around the disabled.
What’s cool to me is how Neecie handles his nincompoopery very nonchalantly and it is a non-issue through the rest of the book. That’s not to say it disappears. In fact, there’s a great times when the need to face Neecie when they’re talking during emotionally loaded moment became so symbolic of how people relate to each other. In many ways Neecie forces Sean to really face shit he doesn’t want to, and I LOVED the parallels there. Neecie is far more than a plot device of a symbol in Sean’s story. She has her own issues and struggles that are similar to Seans. That includes a very unhealthy relationship with a boy at school.
That is another thing I really like about this book. It gives us an unflinching view of unhealthy relationships that are all too common among teens and even adults. Relationships that are often glorified as romantic in a lot of popular YA and NA. Here we see sex isn’t always pretty or about love, and how the desire to fool ourselves into believe it is can hurt everyone involved.
Both Sean and Neecie are in relationships that leave them angry and confused, but they can’t see a way out of them. It would be easy to go cliche routes, make clear villains to make the reader cheer for the victims to find love and healing together. Perfectly Good White Boy isn’t the kind of book to take the easy way out. It forces us to face that a lot of the time in unhealthy relationships there is no clear cut bad guy, but mixed up people making bad choices. That is something I think a lot of teens and adults should see and understand. I know it was something I needed to know when I was a teen.
That brings me back to why I really love realism in YA fiction. There are Seans and Neecies out there who need to know they’re not alone or bad for making mistakes. We need books like Perfectly Good White Boy to spark conversations about codependency and emotional manipulation.
I will add that some people might find the non-end jarring, but for me it felt perfect because it’s real. Life doesn’t end when you become an adult, it just changes. Adulthood isn’t a destination so much as it’s a new and different journey.
My one critique is the use of r-word is inaccurate, though believably so for the two teenage characters. I just dislike anyone using that word, but more specifically how many people mistakenly believe that neurologically diverse people (Down Syndrome, Autism, etc) are intellectually arrested, slow or backward. It is not true at all and we need to stop perpetuating this misinformation.
I would recommend Perfectly Good White Boy to anyone who loved Carrie’s first book, Sex & Violence. Fans of realistic fiction will love it too and I highly recommend it to parents or teachers looking to start a conversation about relationships and sex with teen readers. This book is a great jumping off point and is a great counter balance to popular YA/NA titles that glorify unhealthy/emotionally manipulative relationships.