What They Always Tell Us
"What They Always Tell Us" is a first novel, marketed as a "young adult" book . The story is told in a straightforward, clear and non-experimental way, and it is absolutely about young adults, brothers Alex and James Donaldson. They are students at Central High; their stories are told in alternating chapters.
By Don Noble
Audio ?2011 Alabama Public Radio
"What They Always Tell Us" is a first novel, marketed as a "young adult" book, although, as many are commenting recently, that category may be as specious and useless now as it was when "Little Women" and "Tom Sawyer" were in it.
The story is told in a straightforward, clear and non-experimental way, and it is absolutely about young adults, brothers Alex and James Donaldson. They are students at Central High; their stories are told in alternating chapters.
Author Martin Wilson is a Tuscaloosa native and, I would guess, a 1991 graduate of Central High. The novel, with the fictional Donaldson family at the center, is set in that year, right here in T-town.
I was struck by the simple fact that this was a time before cell phones. The teens leave school and say "call me later," and that evening, each in his or her own bedroom, they talk on the phone. While riding around in their cars alone they think, actually think, about what is happening in their lives.
The Donaldsons live across the river next to a country club, but not out at the lake at that other club. Dad is a successful lawyer, and Mom and Dad are both kind, intelligent, decent, caring people. This does not mean that their two teen-age boys will necessarily have an easy time of it. At the novel's opening, Alex, a junior, has attempted suicide by swallowing "Pine-Sol at Marty Miller's lake house party" in early September. This party was to have served as "the annual welcome-back-to school drunk fest for the junior and senior class. Because of Alex the party had been ruined."
Mom and Dad ask their son James, a senior, why Alex did it. Did James know Alex was depressed? "No more than anyone else, he'd wanted to say, but hadn't." After all, Alex had not given the usual warning signs of "wearing all black or cutting himself or anything like that."
Alex himself is not sure why he did it. Alex "remembers being in that bathroom, feeling a tremendous ache?an ache of emptiness. Something was missing. Something that other people seemed to have without even realizing they had it." Alex, happily, now thinks of it as a "mistake" and tries to convince his parents and his therapist he will not try to harm himself again.
Meanwhile, ex-friends ignore him and Alex's "mistake" is the subject of much gossip. "Tuscaloosa was not a large city?.People know things about people, word gets around." Alex had overheard his own parents at their dinner parties gossiping: who was having an affair, who had a drinking problem, health problems, a failing business, or face lifts, whose kids got a DUI, on and on. Alex's mother tells him to ignore gossip. The mother of Henry, a sad little boy across the street, tells him "Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you." Henry and Alex agree "That's what they always tell us." But it's not really true. "A lot of what ?. [parents] tell us is garbage."
As the novel progresses, the reader learns that Alex is also struggling with his sexuality. He has his first secret gay experiences (not explicitly described), and is terrified the news will get out.
Meanwhile his athletic brother James, thoroughly heterosexual, is nearly as confused and unhappy as Alex. He has a girlfriend, Alice, but finally, the relationship is not satisfying and what he really needs is a good friend, male or female. James will go off to Duke at the end of the novel, "impatient to start a new life, to get away from here." During his last summer here, though, having survived high school, James is seized with a kind of nostalgic affection for his childhood in Tuscaloosa and wishes "he could slow things down."
The intended audience for this novel may be young adults, grades 9-12, but it seems to me the people who might find this novel most valuable would be the parents of those young adults. Apparently the stresses of the teen years, the sense of alienation, despair and loneliness, are far greater than we post-young-adults easily imagine.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."