Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Book Review: Been Clever Forever

(Blogjob tags were adolescent literaturefiction about teenagershigh school novelnovels about male friendshippost-traumatic stressVietnam conflictyoung adult novel.)

A Fair Trade Book
Title: Been Clever Forever
Author: Bruce Stone
Date: 1988
Publisher: Harper & Row
ISBN: 0-06-44013-X
Length: 376 pages
Quote: “I am afflicted with a congenital disease...I am smart.”
A possibility exists that readers might challenge the protagonist’s claim as this story begins. Stephen Douglas is a fast learner, but he uses his talent in what teachers call “immature” ways; he proposes bizarre courses of study, and after reading Animal Farm and A Separate Peace in the same term his response is a parody called A Separate Pig. He’s on civil-speaking terms with some of his classmates and teachers, but he doesn’t bond...until he meets Dr. Truelove.
Family names matter in this story. Stephen doesn’t comment on the contrast between his bid for student office and the adult political life of the historical Stephen Douglas, although the fictional one is proud of his aristocratic Scottish name. Anyway, although “Truelove” is a real family name, it’s not Dr. Truelove’s original family name. We’re not told what this character’s original name was or why he chose the name he did. What we learn is that he’s an emotionally wounded veteran, and Stephen is the one he asks for help.
The things Stephen does for what may be his first real friendship make a long story, not wordy but full of plot twists, and form what may be a prologue to the teenager’s real coming-of-age. At the end of Been Clever Forever Stephen is still a high school boy, albeit a more mature boy who’s learned to be a friend, to respect an opponent, and to resist temptations. (Heterosexual temptations, thanks.)

But you don’t have to be a teenager, or an adult who particularly likes reading about teenagers, to appreciate the story. It’s Truelove’s story too. It can be read as a novel about an adult in which a teenager’s role is to give the story a hopeful ending. If Truelove’s story is going to have a happy ending, that ending is still off in the remote future. This is a story of the post-Vietnam era, about the emotional wounds that can be caused either by serving or by not serving in a war.
Will reading Been Clever Forever help young men understand some of the older men they know? Will it make them more reluctant to serve their country? Both? Neither? This is an “adult” story, not in the sense of “sexually explicit” (it’s not) but in the sense of “emotionally intense.” Much depends on the readers and the people they know.
Most libraries still have a copy of this book somewhere. It would be worth a parent’s or teacher’s time to preview a library copy of Been Clever Forever before buying it for a student. I think a majority of the serious-novel-reading community like it if they read it, but you’ll want to make sure.
Bruce Stone seems to be alive and well, teaching, and avoiding cyberspace, so this is a Fair Trade Book. If you buy it here, $5 per copy + $5 per package + $1 per online payment, I'll send (or try to send!) $1 to Stone or his favorite charity. The per-package shipping charge applies to as many books as I can fit into one package, and if the paperback edition will do, you could fit in probably half a dozen other paperback books. The online payment charge applies to Paypal payments or Amazon giftcards, but not to postal money orders because the U.S. Post Office collects its own surcharge when you send us one.