Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Books

Review: Matthew Quick channels teenage pain in 'Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock'

It's as if Matthew Quick knew that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would be on the cover of Rolling Stone when he describes Leonard Peacock taking an iPhone photo of the P-38, a WWII Nazi handgun, next to his oatmeal, "thinking it could be both evidence and modern art."

Leonard wants to make an impact on the world. He wants to give his lonesome, insignificant existence meaning. And he has decided that he has to kill his former best friend and himself to do that.

Quick's breakout novel, The Silver Linings Playbook, catapulted his name into the spotlight last year with an Academy Award-winning film adaptation. If Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is any indication of how he handled the pressure, it appears as though it stoked the fire for this impressive novel.

The book begins on the morning of Leonard's eighteenth birthday. To celebrate, he plans to say goodbye to four people in his life before he goes to the house of his former best friend, Asher Beal, to shoot him with the P-38 and then kill himself. Although we don't know why Leonard wants to kill Asher, or why he is explicitly Leonard's "former" best friend, Leonard's swirling inner monologue sucks you in to the point where you almost forget that it matters.

Quick is artful with Leonard's adolescent stream-of-consciousness narrative, only letting the curtain slip on the illusion that an adult is crafting the words on the page once or twice. Leonard is a misfit genius whose ultimate task is to help us tackle the hard-hitting teen topics — suicide, teenage violence, homosexuality, rape — in 273 pages, and he does it with a grace of which overwrought TV shows that tackle the same subjects should make note.

Initially reading as bipolar, schizophrenic or both, Leonard, it is quickly apparent, is in self-preservation mode, despite his nonchalant attitude toward his impending suicide. He declares of that photo, "My murder-suicide will make Breakfast of a Teenage Killer a priceless masterpiece because people want artists to be unlike them in every way. If you are boring, nice, normal — like I used to be — you will definitely fail your high school art class and be a subpar artist for life. Worthless to the masses. Forgotten."

Leonard is so self-aware and analytical of his surroundings he uses footnotes throughout the novel to comment on the story he is trying to tell. "Breakfast of a Teenage Killer is a sick double entendre, as I am a killer who is a teenager and since my target is a teenager whom I must kill — I am also a killer of teenagers!"

As the day continues we get some satisfying glimpses into the overarching question, "Why, Leonard?" His parents are effectively nonexistent in his life. His best friend is an 80-year-old WWII vet who bonds with Leonard over their mutual love of "Bogie" (Humphrey Bogart) films. The most admirable adult he knows is his Holocaust class teacher, Herr Silverman. His hobby is to put on his "funeral suit" and take the train into the city and follow someone who looks lonely, leading you to believe that his greatest wish would be for someone to find him significant or lonely enough to follow in his or her free time.

While a plot summary of Leonard Peacock might come across as a plodding funeral dirge, Quick manages to lighten the load with interspersed letters written to Leonard from people in his future. His future boss, wife and daughter all write letters from this fantastical world, providing the glimmer of hope that maybe things will turn out okay for Leonard. It's clear that he's wildly bright and wise beyond his years, he's just 18 and doesn't know how to channel it.

Once we reach those fateful evening hours, each paragraph churns your stomach twice as hard as the last. Quick makes you work for it too — he uses the physical space on the page to draw out time, typing only one word on each page to make the minutes feel as long as they feel for Leonard.

Even though we only get to see 24 hours of Leonard's life (I swear, no spoilers), it is uncomfortably eerie to draw the parallels between Leonard and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or Adam Lanza. All you want is for Leonard to understand what Herr Silverman pounds into his brain: All great people are different. We just hope that he doesn't realize his great differences too late.

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