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Bucking the Sarge

by Christopher Paul Curtis

Take the following genres: heist movies with a cool, clever, stylish hero; Captain Underpants stories with their preoccupation with poop; Michael Moore’s documentaries with their barely disguised anger at injustice; and wholesome middle-school novels in which a boy strives to win the science fair. Stir these around using the pen of Christopher Paul Curtis and you have his latest book, Bucking the Sarge.

Luther T. Farrell, 15, is our stylish hero. (Well, he’ll be more stylish when his acne clears up.) Other cast members include Luther’s best friend or “main dog” Sparky, love interest Shayla Patrick, the residents of the Happy Neighbour Group Home for Men, Luther’s villainous mother, AKA the Sarge, and her thuggy henchman, Darnell Dixon.

The setting is Flint, Michigan, where Curtis grew up. His Flint is every bit as bleak as Michael Moore’s in the documentary Roger and Me. All of the main characters have the same goal: to survive in, or escape from, Flint. The Sarge believes that survival is only possible through wealth, and she’s using every illegal and immoral scam in the book to amass it. Sparky, also on the quest for riches, is trying to get injured so that he can sue somebody for a bundle. Luther, on the other hand, has plans to become a philosopher, considers Flint “nothing but a state of mind,” and is pinning his hopes on academic achievement.

The plot proceeds at a breakneck pace. Sparky tries to get bitten by a rabid rat. One of the inmates of the group home (a facility that Luther manages for his mom) tries to persuade Luther to make a break for Florida. The Sarge, a slum landlord and loan shark, threatens the elderly and evicts the poor from their homes. There is a storm and some pit bulls and an undertaker. Through it all, Luther works on his science fair project. Along the way, the reader might just miss the essential plot detail involving a paint chip shaped like Madagascar.

Two running jokes keep this more or less sewn togther. One is Luther’s citing of various bits of wisdom gleaned from “a great philosopher whose name escapes me at the moment.” The other is the gradual revelation that all of Luther’s ideas actually come from shows on obscure satellite TV networks. Events come to a climax when Luther’s clash of values with his mother finally reaches the breaking point. By winning the science fair he coincidentally threatens to blow the cover on his mother’s source of income. Things get dangerous and he decides to bail out. Luckily, he has a forged driver’s license, a car in his own name, and a large whack of cash. This is where the heist part comes in, and everything winds up with a great wish-fulfillment fantasy of revenge, freedom, and altruism.

Is this book as good as Curtis’s Newbery Medal-winning novel Bud, Not Buddy? It’s as funny, original, and emotionally satisfying. The plot isn’t as tight, however, and its energy feels a bit more contrived. For some young Canadian readers the first few chapters may also contain a lot to absorb and translate. It’s not so much the black urban vernacular, since Curtis is adept at explaining through context. (The word “siddity” gave me pause, though. Research reveals it means “snobby,” but its etymology is obscure.) The foreignness is more a matter of tone. Here’s a snatch of conversation in which Sparky lists the disadvantages of Luther’s life:
“Then seven, there’s the fact that you ain’t never had a woman, and probably never will.”
[Luther] said, “And eight, the fact that . . . wait a minute, you’re trying to say I’ve never had a woman?”
Sparky looped his thumb and pointing finger in a circle and said, “N’e’en one, nada, baby.”
[Luther] said, “So you mean to tell me your momma had a sex-change operation? I knew there was something strange about her.”

This is the way the banter goes.

On the subject of foreignness, you may be wondering why I am focusing on Bucking the Sarge in this column. It is not, on the face of it, a Canadian story at all. The author is American, the editor is American, and the setting is American through and through. But my technical loophole is that Curtis has lived for many years in Windsor, Ontario, and it is a time-honoured Canadian tradition to claim as our own any talented artist who wanders over the border.

There is another, better reason, however. A central theme in this novel is the moral quagmire of private health care. The Sarge runs her group home for maximum profit – she abuses and deprives the residents and then she drugs them so that they cannot complain. And why not? She is a hard-working, self-made single mother who uses the capitalist system to flourish. Certain politicians of Bushian stripe would see her as a model, her success as the American dream fulfilled. This is a funny book but it is also a very angry one, a cautionary tale about the American dream gone sour. We would do well to listen to the Americans in our midst.