Seventeen-year-old Greg has managed to become part of every social group at his Pittsburgh high school without having any friends, but his life changes when his mother forces him to befriend Rachel, a girl he once knew in Hebrew school who has leukemia.
I’ve gotta say, it seems like the Pittsburgh Public School system is producing a good number of extremely talented and artistic people these days. Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller, me… OK, maybe I don’t count. But you can definitely add Jesse Andrews to the list, because this book is both talented and artistic. And it’s also funny as hell.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is written as a book-inside-a-book. The main character, Greg Gaines, is writing it for reasons that will be learned later. He employs several formats, including screenplay-style and bulleted lists. At the beginning, Greg is trying to figure out how to go about writing it. Can I play a totally useless 80s pop culture association game for a minute here? As Greg struggles to begin the book, he considers using “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” which may or may not have already been used. He’s even trying to change the punctuation and italicization to make it work for him. All I could think of is the movie Throw Momma From the Train, where Billy Crystal’s character is trying to come up with the first line of his book and he keeps erasing it over and over. “The night was moist…”
Ahem. Anyway, back to the book I am actually reviewing. The gist is that Greg, who has made a career of being tolerated by everyone but friendly with no one in high school, is forced by his mother to befriend the girl with leukemia who he attended Hebrew school with. This totally throws off Greg’s delicate balance of not getting too close to any one person or group, and frankly, he sees as an imposition. He and his “business associate” but not quite best friend Earl are also talked into making one of their awful amateur movies for Rachel, which proves to be a catastrophic event for Greg’s already fragile self-esteem.
I was hesitant to read Me & Earl so soon after reading The Fault In Our Stars because, hey, KIDS WITH CANCER BOOKS. It turned out to be a total non-issue. They are nothing alike. They are the Mars and Venus of kids with cancer books, and are both fantastic in their own way. Me & Earl is not a life-affirming book. It’s not a book about growing up and learning to deal with suffering. It’s an irreverent look at a kid who is just trying to survive high school dealing with being forced into a situation that he, frankly, doesn’t want to deal with. He wouldn’t even be friends with Rachel if he wasn’t compelled into it, and if you’re looking for a book where the character grows and changes and learns how to be a better person, this isn’t the one you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a book that is witty and funny, you should give this one a try. I laughed out loud several times before I had even finished the first chapter. Examples of the witty:
“My point is this: this book contains precisely zero Important Life Lessons, or Little-Known Facts About Love, or sappy tear-jerking moments When We Knew We Had Left Our Childhood Behind For Good, or whatever. And, unlike most books in which a girl gets cancer, there are definitely no sugary paradoxical single-sentence-paragraphs that you’re supposed to think are deep because they’re in italics. Do you know what I’m talking about? I’m talking about sentences like this: “The cancer had taken her eyeballs, yet she saw the world with more clarity than ever before.””
“How would it make things better if I were to call up and finally offer to hang out? What would I even say? “Hey, I heard you got leukemia. Sounds like you need an emergency prescription…for Greg-acil.””
The language can be pretty bad/raunchy, so if that kind of thing bothers you, you might want to give this one a pass. If you are anything like me and have the mouth of the disgruntled lovechild of a sailor and a truck driver, you’ll squee with delight.
I love that Andrews makes Pittsburgh a character. So many places he mentions – neighborhoods, schools, etc. – are places I go on the regular. Benson High School is fake but I strongly suspect it’s based on the high school Andrews attended, Schenley (other Schenley grads: Andy Warhol and George BENSON. Coincidence?). Benson also reminded me of my own inner-city Pittsburgh high school, which is probably not a coincidence since mine & Andrews’ were cut from the same cloth. I also LOVE that he uses the word “yinzer” and explains what it is for the uninitiated. He also (sort of) gives some love to my alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. And I adore the cover. It’s one of my favorites, actually. There’s just something about it I really like.
Jesse Andrews has written a really cool, witty, non-sentimental book about a kid and his friend their relationship with a girl with cancer. He also seems like he’d be an awesome guy to hang out and have a beer with, and wax ecstatic about all things yinzer. We could reminisce about the time Jean Claude Van Damme totally saved the Civic Arena from blowing up with the Vice President inside, or that time river patrol cop Bruce Willis busted that dude who was murdering women and tossing them into the Mon in rolled up carpets. Overall I loved this book. Highly recommended.