Authors have many good reasons for choosing to set their tales of teen angst in space or the distant past, or in worlds full of vampires, extraterrestrials, or sentient robots. One reason YA writers prefer these settings is that they allow them to deal with big teen issues – love, loneliness, parents, sex, death, tragedy, acne – without coming off like an after-school special. Adolescent characters sitting around talking about how alienated they feel? Yawn. Adolescent werewolf characters siting around getting all emo? Cool!
Realistic stories have it tough: the more directly an issue is addressed, the more young readers (and many older ones) want to turn away. It takes a lot of skill to keep things from getting mawkish, and mawkish minus zombies is a deadly formula for a YA novel.
There is nothing remotely supernatural in Winnipeg author Colleen Nelson’s second book, unless you count the skateboard tricks performed by one of its main characters. The Fall takes place in an unnamed, medium-sized Canadian town – one big enough to possess a violent street gang and a developed skateboard culture, but small enough that everyone knows everyone else’s business.
Ben is a 15-year-old skating nerd with a backpack full of resentment toward his deadbeat father and an unnatural talent on the half-pipe. His only real friend is Tessa, a tough-talking fellow skater. He does what he can to stay out of the way of his high school’s more notorious bullies, a group that includes Cory, Taz, and Taz’s younger brother, Luke. After a fortuitous encounter with Luke involving a dropped bag of weed, Ben is invited to hang with the tough kids. Though initially reluctant, he agrees, and finds himself getting stoned, being kicked out of a movie theatre, and breaking into a construction site to smoke more pot. The group climbs to the top of an unfinished parking garage, where Luke stumbles and falls to his death.
The lives of the surviving boys are instantly changed. Cory, whose father died in a car accident a few years before, retreats into his anger and joins a violent gang called the Warriors. Taz is destroyed by guilt and starts drinking vodka all day. Ben must deal with his own feelings of guilt, made worse by Cory’s attempts (via a Facebook campaign) to blame the accident on him.
The novel takes place over eight days, and is broken into alternating sections for each boy. Ben is the obvious hero: he’s the only character allowed the privilege of narrating his own story, and his struggles take up the lion’s share of the book. He’s also the least interesting of the bunch, the one with the shortest distance to go toward redemption and healing. We know all along he’s a decent kid and he’ll come through mostly okay. He briefly flirts with the dark side – threatening a small child with a switchblade – but the temptation quickly evaporates, and before you know it, he’s throwing the knife into the river.
Ben ends up getting a shot at a skate-shop sponsorship and stands up to his many adversaries. Cory and Taz’s descent into their own personal versions of hell offer much more dramatic potential, and Nelson lets us see both of these tough guys as deeply wounded and worthy of some kind of grace.
The Fall possesses an admirable grittiness. The scenes in which Cory endures his initiation into the Warriors, in particular, are raw and violent, and seem more appropriate for a slightly older audience than the sections featuring skater-hero Ben. It’s hard to invest Ben’s quest to land the sponsorship of a skate store with the same emotional weight as the misfortunes suffered by the other boys. This imbalance ultimately undermines the novel: Nelson often takes her story into very dark and troubling territory, only to back away at the last minute. Cory’s nasty social-media campaign against Ben is undone by a single face-to-face encounter. Taz is estranged from his family, but then gets welcomed back into their arms at Luke’s funeral.
The biggest strike against the novel is that it is deeply clichéd. This is a book in which all the dads are angry, absent, ineffectual, or dead; the girls either sarcastic and asexual (like Tessa) or hapless and kind of trashy; and the friendly immigrant restaurant owners sound like Chico Marx: “This trouble stay with you a long time, but it no your fault, Benny. You a good boy.” Worse, the story feels like a morality tale from the 1950s or ’60s: don’t smoke marijuana and hang around the bad kids, because someone might die!
Had Nelson chosen to set her tale in the shadow of the apocalypse, or if the boys shared a centuries-old hunger for blood or an ability to shape-shift, some of the weaknesses may have seemed less stark. Without an added dimension, however, the reader is left with nothing to fall back on.
Reviewed by Nathan Whitlock (from the June 2013 issue)