Thumbsucker by Walter Kim
reviewed by David Olson
Department of Commuication Studies
If you read Thumbsucker by Walter Kirn on the beach, the title alone should attract looks and comments. It came to my attention because the title alone had attracted the attention of Tom Wolfe, known as one of the founders of what’s sometimes called “the new journalism,” and who has famously created dead-on portraits of those who embody elements of popular culture and who is known for his turbocharged literary style. More recently Wolfe has become known as an author of novels that offer a culturally conservative critique of American mores.
When Thumbsucker came out Wolfe told the Atlanta Constitution, based on only the title and his reading of a brief synopsis of the plot (a teenage boy is hypnotized out of his thumb sucking habit and replaces it with many different things that cause him problems), that the book embodies all the narcissistic and puerile writing that is causing the protracted death of the American novel. (It can be noted that Wolfe coined the phrase that characterizes people who came of age during the 1960s as “the me-generation,” by which you can guess he is somewhat down on narcissism and puerility.)
Kirn, who is a book reviewer for New York Magazine and a contributor to Time and GQ, shot back that Wolfe’s comment was the worst kind of empty cocktail party chatter and that he (Kirn) at least had read Wolfe’s A Man in Full before slamming it. As if charges of narcissism, puerility, and empty cocktail party chatter weren’t enough of a recommendation for summer reading, Kirn sealed my determination to read Thumbsucker by later writing a review of his own book in a small literary magazine in which he seems to reverse course, apparently agreeing with Wolfe. Kirn writes that Thumbsucker “is a potentially harmful literary contagion.” It is in short “the coming-of-age novel which threatens to replace manly reportorial realism” with “a feminized, lightweight lyricism,” and that furthermore his novel “could use more patriarchy.” Kirn is, of course, being ironic here but he is basically telling the truth about Thumbsucker.
Thumbsucker is, in some ways, lightweight. It’s a comedy of incidents that seem to have a beginning in autobiography but slowly move into hilarious improbability. It is lyrical; he has a poet’s eye for the right image and ear for the right words: describing his speech coach as having skin like “cooked turkey” and casting his fishing line into “a white wrinkle of foam” on the river bend.
His irony about patriarchy is that much of the novel concerns the protagonist’s father’s failure to be the kind of patriarch that he felt was his destiny since his days as a linebacker. His displays of manliness include killing deer no one will eat and referring to his family as “you people.”
Coming-of-age novels (Bildungsromans or novels of education) have a long history of being “a literary contagion” and being regarded as disreputable by guardians of young people’s morals since the first one of its type: Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther which supposedly caused a rash of suicides inspired by the suicide of young Werther. Other famous novels of education, Huck Finn, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (Dylan Thomas), and my generation’s favorite, Catcher in the Rye, have all been repeatedly banned from high schools for bad language and poor role modeling. But their greatest sin has probably been to tell uncomfortable truths about growing up and tell them in
Kirn may not be ready to stand beside Twain, Joyce, or Salinger but he gives one a feeling for what it’s like to grow up smart, verbal, misunderstood, and rebellious in the latter part of the twentieth century in America. And that is, I think, what it means to succeed in this genre: every writer of coming-of-age novels must reflect what it means to grow up in his or her particular place and generation.
As if to prove the point, Tom Wolfe, who is a generation older than Kirn, has since their exchange written his own Bildungsroman entitled I Am Charlotte Simmons. It seems to me to be about what it would be like if a rather conservative person in his 70’s suddenly found himself a student at Duke in 2005. Wolfe is apparently shocked and disgusted to find that some college students drink beer, have rowdy parties, indiscriminately worship athletes, have premarital sex, dress poorly, and curse in public. If this is all news to you then you may be tempted to work your way through Wolfe’s 676-page tome.
Kirn also passes judgment on his generation’s adolescence but it’s more nuanced and his humor balances the critique. It is, in my opinion, a drink of equal parts wry, bitters, and fizz–just right when you want a summer drink with a little something extra.