“Teenager” by Bud Smith encapsulates the specific and peculiar feeling of what if I just drove off, away from my life, with no real destination? stretched out for nearly 400 pages. It is a romp through the crisscrossing American highways and equally twisted minds of two teenagers, Kody and Teal. Kody is a foster kid who escaped from a juvenile detention center. He’s in love with Teal, a girl abused by her father. Within the first 20 pages, Kody breaks out of juvie, kills both of Teal’s parents and steals a car. Their stories, both individual and intertwined, are sad from the very beginning, tinged with just enough desperation that “leaving it all behind” seems a little more plausible than it does for the rest of us.
At first, from its description on the back, I was worried this novel was going to be another rose-colored-glasses, romanticized-open-road, driving-with-the-windows-down epic, with a rambling plot and long descriptions of the pastoral beauty of America. I was so wrong. Right from the beginning, this book warns you that it won’t fall into those tropes, and if it does, you’re right to be suspicious. Kody and Teal aren’t boy- or girl-next-door types. Their escape was never going to be just any old road trip, because it started with a double homicide. This dispels any glamorous expectations the reader might have had and points them towards something darker.
Bud Smith manages to capture the innocence and idiocy of teenagerdom, while showing that trauma can make people grow up too fast. Kody and Teal visit Graceland, they swim in the Pacific, they go to county fairs. But they also mourn and cry and are confused and aimless. They come to great realizations about life in the most mundane ways — Kody says, “‘When the hands of a clock reach the end, they just swing around again. Everything repeats,’” to which Teal replies, “‘So time is timeless?’” They are often dropping nuggets of wisdom as they do decidedly unwise (and often illegal) things.
The main characters are unbelievable — they’re just written a little too wildly to really ring true. But in a way, that makes them all the more real. Even just three years out of my teenage years, I already feel like it is decades away. In a book for an adult audience, the teenage years make sense when written as somewhat of a fever dream. More than that, though, a book about teenagers written for and by adults needs to tread carefully; don’t make them too mature, don’t make them too childlike. Smith toes that line, sometimes crossing too far to one side or the other, but overall, the book maintains its balancing act. Kody and Teal aren’t believable, but I think teenagers in general aren’t believable unless you actively are one.
There are no outright fantastical elements in this book in the traditional sense — no dragons or spellcasting or time travel — but that doesn’t mean the book doesn’t have magic. It has a shimmer, a sort of surreal gleam that allows it to rest just on the edge of reality. Is it plausible that two 17-year-olds could evade law enforcement for months upon months after committing two murders, work at a Montana ranch, live in a tree or fish for their food after living in New Jersey their entire lives prior? I think the answer is a pretty resounding no. It’s a sort of fantasy in and of itself, but the book pulls you along and allows you to indulge in it — what if this somehow did work out? The plot is just as warped as the characters it follows.
The implausibility of the plot is compounded with the way Smith describes ordinary things with a glimmer of unreality. Kody and Teal hide from the police: “While they waited, the ground gave off a hum. The machinery at the center of the earth generating life.” They wake up in an Oregon forest: “A blanket of mist erased the world.” They drive through prairies: “The land looked written in invisible ink.” The striking doodles by Rae Buleri that accompany the chapter headings and are interspersed throughout the novel contribute to its playful and irreverent nature.
Adding to the sheen of unreality is the remarkable unreliability of the main character, Kody. This isn’t just something readers pick up on through clues — Kody outright tells us he has brain damage from his foster mom’s boyfriend cracking his head open. He gets seizures and has hallucinations and is undeniably barely hanging on to any semblance of sanity. It is difficult to know if what Kody says is happening is what is actually happening, and only sometimes do we get outside confirmation (and usually it comes from Teal, who, between her trauma and age, isn’t exactly reliable herself). But the reader is assured of his relative insanity from the very beginning, so his unreliability isn’t frustrating — it’s baked into the narrative as naturally as any other element.
“Teenager” was not the book I expected it to be, and maybe that’s the best thing that could’ve happened. It wasn’t perfect, but its imperfections matched the messiness of its main characters and the slipperiness of the situation they’d gotten themselves into. And as a bonus, the ending at least partially resolved some of the complicated feelings I had about Kody’s often manipulative behavior towards Teal. While avoiding many of the pitfalls of an over-romanticized road trip novel, Smith still managed to capture some of the freedom and chaos of open skies that we all crave. Kody and Teal tear up their old lives and go on the lam from coast to coast so you don’t have to. This book allows you to gaze into the abyss of crushing possibility that opens up when you cut all ties with the world, and at the end of it all, leaves you feeling glad that you kept the distance of ink and pages between yourself and Kody and Teal’s adventure.
Senior Arts Editor Emilia Ferrante can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.