Heavy Metal by Andrew Bourelle: More Like Heavy Emotions

We’ve all probably read a book that has made us cry before. Heavy Metal by Andrew Bourelle will make you sob. Heavy Metal is Bourelle’s first novel, published by Autumn House Press, a small press in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It won the 2016 Autumn House Fiction Prize and with good reason. It’s a tale of a world that often goes ignored: the strife of teenage brothers growing up in a working-class neighborhood in the 1980s. There’s violence, guns, suicide, mental illness, alcoholism, you name it. However, it’s not just the mere placement of these issues that made me sob, it’s how Bourelle brought the storyline to life through his writing.

From the beginning of the book, the reader is hooked when Danny holds his father’s gun to his head, debating whether to pull the trigger. We find that Danny thinks about death a lot, one of the reasons being he discovered his mother’s body after she shot herself a couple years ago. Throughout the story, Danny fears becoming like his mother and battles with his depressive thoughts. His older brother, Craig, fears becoming like their father who’s an alcoholic and rarely shows any emotion towards Danny and Craig except anger. The main thread of conflict though is the feud Craig has with Jamie, the most popular guy in their high school who’s dating Craig’s ex-girlfriend. One day Craig disappears, and Jamie redirects his anger by tormenting Danny. The bullying gets worse and worse until the reader cannot help but feel that something horrible could happen any minute. With the three boys having a predisposition for violence and hot tempers, I was left sobbing over all that had occurred by the end.

Through the story’s conflict, Bourelle crafts lines that depict the impact of emotional suppression and mental illness. We gain insight into what Danny’s problems have done to him: “Life would be easier if you didn’t care, if you could walk through it numb, not feeling any emotions.” This phrase says a lot about Danny as a character and how deep his pain is rooted. Emotional suppression, paired with the masculine stereotypes imposed on the boys, causes them to resort to violence as an outlet. The boys never once try to sit down and talk about how they feel. Danny even has opportunities to get help through the school counselor and local police officer, but he refuses to talk to them. Bourelle made me reflect on how so many teenage boys ignore their emotions and what kind of issues in society this causes— such as violence. Bourelle also uses the motif of music as a physical manifestation of Danny’s emotions: “I think about if I tried to express my rage to the world what my song would sound like.” With this motif, the title Heavy Metal makes sense; It’s about heavy emotions resulting in heavy violence— the metal alluding to a gun.

Written in present tense, the book places the reader as close to Danny’s mindset as possible. We see these events occur as they happen, and we don’t know what horrible thing will play out next. If it was written in past tense, we would possibly feel more optimistic that Danny is still around to tell his story, but present tense allows for the threat of Danny taking his own life to be very real. Also, Bourelle does a great job of capturing how teenage boys actually talk, and he removes the dialog quotes to demonstrate how much the words impact Danny. “I’m sorry about last night, bro” is a simple phrase Craig says to Danny, but since the boys rarely outright say their emotions, it bleeds into Danny’s internal dialog, showing how much he internalizes his brother’s love and everything going on around him.

I would recommend Heavy Metal to those who enjoy the classic The Outsiders, as it puts teenage boys in horrific adult situations. It lends perspective to those who have tragedy painted into every day of their lives without a happy ending in sight. It highlights issues such as mental illness, bullying, hyper-masculinity, and violence. Bourelle made me laugh and cry. He left me turning pages at 2 a.m. to find out what happens even though I had class the next morning. He made me feel with Danny, not just feel for Danny. And that’s what a good book should do.

My Sister’s Keeper: Great Premise, Mediocre Execution, Trick Ending

WARNING: This review contains spoilers.

I picked up My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult because I wanted to find more best-selling authors to inspire me. Sadly, I will not be adding Picoult to my list. I wanted to love this book. It posed an intriguing moral dilemma: Conceived with the sole purpose of keeping her sister Kate alive, 13 year old Anna has spent her entire life donating various parts of her body to Kate, who suffers from leukemia. At 16, Kate is about to die of kidney failure, and instead of donating a kidney, Anna brings her parents to court, claiming she doesn’t want to be her sister’s donor anymore. Anna has spent her entire life sacrificing her childhood to keep her sister alive, just for her to likely die after they run out of treatment options. But her parents push back, desperate to keep Kate alive out of their love for her, leaving the reader questioning what’s right.

Aside from the main conflict, the first minor problems with the story arise from a subplot. We have the story of Anna’s lawyer and guardian ad litem, Campbell and Julia. They were teenage lovers, broke up, but somehow never got over it 15 years later (really?). Their backstory is a stereotype. At a prep school, Julia was the loner bad girl with pink hair “who wore army boots and a Cheap Trick T-shirt under her school blazer,” and Campbell was the popular rich boy. The reader is intermittently dragged through their story, to see them get back together in the present. While it’s cute, I hardly feel for them, as it’s an underdeveloped novel idea shoved into another. Currently the version I read stands at 432 pages, but this subplot, along with over-elaborations in other sections, could have easily been cut, condensing the book to a more digestible length.

Despite my issues with My Sister’s Keeper, I would like to hand it to Picoult in that she does her research. The book is packed with so many details of medical and legal proceedings, that I was wondering if she was a doctor/ lawyer herself. I read on her website that research is very important to her: “I hate catching authors in inaccuracies when I’m a reader, so I’m a stickler when I’m writing.” However, Picoult seemed to neglect internal accuracy. I want to get inside the heads of complex individuals, which I struggled with in reading this novel. First of all, switching between points of view was disorienting, mostly because none of the characters had distinct voices. I got hints of it when Kate and Anna’s brother Jesse talked, but it was mainly due to a sprinkling of swear words and stereotypical male thoughts about women: “Every now and then I have to contradict myself and believe in God, such as at this very moment when I come home to find a bodacious babe on my doorstep.” Other than that, everyone sounds the same. For example, Anna’s voice should be drastically different than her middle-aged mother, but they are identical. Their voices would have come out if their psyches were developed. What made them whole, unique people? Stemming from the flat characters, the dialog was unrealistic. There were points where I blantaly thought, no one talks like that. Also, I had no idea what the characters even looked like. The lack of depth of these characters made them feel like talking heads driving a lengthy, convoluted plot.

Despite the writing problems, I was willing to give the book a chance. It explored a moral debate in a way that made me wonder if Jojo Moyes got her idea for Me Before You off Picoult. But then I realized Moyes actually makes the hard choice in the end. While the ending of Me Before You made me sad, it fit. But Picoult takes a different route. First, there is a plot twist, but it’s believable. Anna actually wanted to donate her kidney, but Kate told her “don’t do it,” wanting to end her family’s suffering. Anna wins her case, but is unsure if she will follow Kate’s wishes. I expect Kate to die either way, and I expect to cry over it. (But not as hard as I would if the characters were more developed). But then by the strike of God, Picoult avoids Anna making a choice, and kills her in a random car accident. I did cry, but not because I was sad, but because I was angry. I could barely chew through the last pages, where Anna’s kidney is donated to Kate, and she is miraculously cured, living 10 years to the present. I was so ready to excuse my quips over the writing, but this trick ending erases the very moral dilemma the book imposed and gives the reader an unbelievable ending. Picoult did what a basic a fiction class teaches you not to do: killing off your character just to end the story–  erasing the entire 432 pages she just dragged her reader through. The ending was not earned, and it was certainly not realistic.

I know as an aspiring author, I have a lot of audacity to criticize a best-selling author, but I truly felt cheated as a reader. Jodi Picoult is 50 and has written 23 novels, cranking them out at a rate of roughly one a year. I’m still impressed by this feat, as I will have my first novel probably written after two years, probably published after four. However, now I realize sometimes you have to slow down to make sure you’re producing the best work you’re capable of. Edit carefully. Get in the head of your characters. Make the ending fit.