You cannot walk into the Young Adult Fiction section of a bookstore these days and not be confronted with an endless and soulless supply of Twilight clones, Hunger Games knock-offs and Harry Potter replicas. Don’t even get me started on those racks full of CW shows disguised, just barely, as literature.
It’s entirely possible to forget that novels assembled with the time-tested building blocks — interesting characters, genuine emotions, relatable situations — are still capable of providing us with enormous pleasure. Even without the help of sparkling vampires.
Thankfully such pleasures are more than abundant in Brent Hartinger’s latest novel, The Elephant of Surprise. And by the time I closed the last page, I was smiling, uplifted and charmed by a novel that transported me completely to a time when love was strange and magical. Young love, as Hartinger’s novels effortlessly reminds, is about the purest kind there is.
Elephant, the fourth book in a series that began with Geography Club and includes The Order of the Poison Oak and the dual perspective novel Double Feature: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies, continues the often funny and touching trials and tribulations of gay seventeen-year-old Russell Middlebrook.
You need not have read the previous three books to follow along, but there’s no reason to deny yourself the fun of reading them anyway.
Full disclosure: Hartinger, along with his partner Michael Jensen are former editors of AfterElton and were instrumental in my becoming a writer for the site. This, however, did not influence my review. Thank goodness it is a wonderful book or that would have made Twitter very, um, awkward.
The novel begins with Russel, still only a junior in high school, facing the realization that, because of the physical distance between them, his relationship with boyfriend Otto has downshifted from “great, odds-overcoming love” to the dreaded, chat-room based “friend zone”.
With his friends Min and Gunnar in complicated relationships of their own, Russel decides that romance is simply not worth the bother and declares himself “done with love” even as he’s gravitating towards ex-boyfriend Kevin (and hating himself for it).
His anti-love stance soon takes a detour because of a chance encounter with a young man named Wade, an obviously intelligent and, to Russel’s consternation and hormonal curiosity, highly attractive Freegan.
Yes, Freegan. For those not yet in the know, Freegans are a group of people who are decidedly and staunchly “anti-consumerist” and only use or consume food, clothing or other items that have been donated or discarded. As it regards the first time Russell lays eyes on Wade, I have to say it is the first meet-cute I’ve ever read with one character in a dumpster. And somehow, that worked with me.
Despite not knowing whether Wade is gay, bisexual or none of the above, Russel finds himself hanging out at trash sites and scoping homeless encampments just hoping to see Wade again and the novel perfectly captures the embarrassing, dignity-eschewing lengths we go to when we want to extend a chance encounter.
I will, of course, not reveal much in the way of the novel’s considerable developments. Let’s just say that the Shakespearian adage, “The course of true love never did run smooth,” holds quite firmly here.
I will, however, commend this book for its beguiling charm. Much like in Poison Oak, my favorite of the series so far, Hartinger creates a world here that is realistic and appropriate to the age group he’s writing for and about. The book is subtly nostalgic too, which makes it a bit magical for a reader in his late 30’s. Yes, I’m talking about me.
Hartinger is also not afraid to make his protagonist look and sound a little foolish. Russel narrates the story, so we are with the character every step of his journey, even while knowing he’s about to make mistakes writ large and small. We know this because, in our teenage years, we’ve made similar mistakes. What was painful once has, in time, transformed into memories that are still cringe-inducing but also incredibly comical. It’s a rather vivid reaction — one that is only finessed from us due to some beautiful writing.
I also continue to admire and celebrate the series for its matter-of-fact approach to diversity. Especially this book. It never feels shoehorned in or written with capitol letter PURPOSE. It’s a simple reflection of the world we live in, by people who notice and simply don’t care all that much.
For example, because a sentence like that requires one, Wade is African-American. He’s also a bit of a cypher in the beginning, gradually revealing himself to Russell and to us. We’re drawn in because Russel is drawn in. First physically, then emotionally.
Readers will, no doubt, clue me in to other fiction novels that accomplish the same feat, but it’s the first time I can recall ever having read the candid thoughts of a gay white male regarding his attraction to a black male that wasn’t loaded down with stereotyping and racial junk. Russel briefly wonders to himself what it would feel like to kiss a black person but dismisses this as an errant thought and simply pursues the object of his affection without reservation. This stuck me as quietly, but thrillingly revolutionary.
Elephant may not be all perfect. One character has some important information to tell another character but is constantly prevented from doing so because that would reduce the story by about a hundred pages. But this is nitpicking. While such minor contrivances may take us briefly out of the narrative, they are never lasting enough to detract from the next humorous or intriguing plot development around the corner.
Through it all, Russel remains a young guy trying to do the right thing for himself and the people he cares about. While he sometimes misses the mark, he tries hard and more then often succeeds. That spirit is not only a significant part of the character’s charm, it is also a crucial element that makes Elephant (and the series as a whole) ultimately heartening and special.
Hartinger’s latest novel may not involve spells or shape-shifting and it may not command a shelf full of derivative clones. But it is storytelling that is alive and uplifting and, as a Freegan would no doubt say, a delightful bit of treasure in the trash heap.