Author: Andrew Smith
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
There is a type of young adult novels set up particularly for the young adult dude: coming of age stories about high schools and the shenanigans the awkward protagonist and his slightly-abnormal friends get up to. They are the ode to the teenage boy, finding his way in the world and praying he doesn’t mess too many things up as he does so. Often the endgame of these stories is to show these gawky teens that it can and will be better, but not before you make a few mistakes.
In the genre of the Young Adult Dude Novel, there is a sub-genre: the Heartfelt Dude Novel. Books like John van de Ruit’s Spud, Brent Crawford’s Carter Finally Gets It, and Don Calame’s Swim the Fly are all good examples of this genre, and this past year from Simon & Schuster, Andrew Smith’s Winger joins the ranks.
Winger is most definitely a Dude Novel. For those unfamiliar with the inner workings of the male teenage brain, Winger is full of the innermost thoughts of this fourteen-year-old boy. The story follows Ryan Dean West in his complicated junior year of high school at Pine Mountain and is told from his inside perspective, hand-drawn comic strips and all. A fourteen-year-old junior who got himself landed in the delinquent dormitory of his boarding school, Ryan Dean is having the struggle of his young life. He’s the youngest in his grade, the youngest of his friends, and the scrawny 140-pound winger of his school’s rugby team. Not to mention younger than his best friend Annie Altman, who he is predictably in love with.
Rugby is an essential part of this novel, and Ryan Dean’s place on the team is part of what makes this novel such a compelling, compassionate read. The Pine Mountain Rugby team is a family, though they would never willingly identify as such. One example of this concerns Ryan Dean’s teammate Joey. As a young gay man on a rugby team, Joey gets a lot of crap from his teammates, but it is in the manner of teasing Ryan Dean about his young age and fellow teammate JP about his perverted mind. In truth, this novel is what some posh readers would refer to as crude. There is vulgarity, punches thrown, and many oddly hilarious scenes about genitals. This is, after all, a Dude’s book. Ryan Dean West talks and acts just as many high school boys do, making the comical conversations realistic and the serious ones anything but sappy.
While the coarse realistic nature of the story may be unappealing to non-dudes, it is the authenticity of the protagonist’s voice that makes this novel for more than just the fourteen-year-old boy. Ryan Dean, for all his gangly bumbling, is full of heart and well-intentioned sweetness, no matter how many jokes come out of his mouth. The story at its root deals with the reshaping personal perspectives, something people of all ages can relate to or remember. Because the genre of a book is just a label, and if Winger shows readers anything, it’s that labels can only make or break you if you let them. And even though it’s superficial premise is precisely made for teenage boys, any reader who picks up Smith’s novel will be rewarded with the genuine response of a teenage boy to the crazy, changing world around him, whether they’re a dude or not.