On Thursday, I started reading Matthew Quick’s Sorta Like a Rock Star. On Friday morning, I finished it. I managed this despite taking Ambien on Thursday night. Ended up staying up until 1 in the morning and then, when I woke up before the alarm, instead of going back to sleep or turning on the television, I finished reading the book.
I’ll say this much: I’m glad I finished the book in the privacy of my own home. While it may have helped his sales some, I don’t fancy the idea of sitting on the 4 Train and blubbering like an idiot as the story crosses the finish line. The short version of this review: Buy this book and read it. (Full disclosure: Matthew Quick blurbed my book and though I’ve still yet to meet him, I think he’s a cool cat.)
Sorta Like a Rock Star is technically young adult fiction, not a genre I read often and one for which I — and probably many others — feel a need to make excuses for reading. There’s no need to make excuses for reading young-adult fiction. You might automatically associate it in your mind with Harry Potter and Twilight — which, like it or not, will probably outlast more adult, literary fare lauded by reviewers — but keep in mind that both “Huckleberry Finn” and “Catcher in the Rye” would probably be shelved in the YA section of Barnes & Noble in today’s publishing environment.
There are treasures to be found on those shelves and Sorta Like a Rock Star in one of them.
It’s the story of Amber Appleton, perhaps one of the most optimistic high-school juniors you’ll ever meet. No small feat considering that, as the book opens, she’s living out of a school bus with her alcoholic mother, a woman defeated by life and a series of poor choices in men.
J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is usually the touchstone for readers of our generation when we think literary coming-of-age story. But the fact of the matter is Holden is a walking case of arrested development. The realization that one is surrounded by phonies may be a rite of passage, but he didn’t seem to grow beyond that. (Indeed, these days, Holden, after the book closed out, probably would have move to Williamsburg and opened an ironic t-shirt shop with his parents’ money.)
Amber Appleton, on the other hand, has learned at an early age that people are phonies—and sometimes something much worse. Yet she sees no reason to let that slow her down.
In fact, Amber has progressed to such a point that she often is able to manipulate unwitting adults. She moves through the world with a smile on her face, a hello for everyone she meets and a faith in God and humanity. She volunteers — voluntarily — for the love of God! Indeed, what I found almost shocking in the book was her religion. Not because it’s necessarily out of place, but because as cranky ex-Catholic, I not necessarily a fan of the religious talk. But Quick handles Amber’s Catholicism lightly. Hell, her take on religion and Jesus — who she pictures as a rock star — is downright hilarious.
Here’s Amber relating why she soured on one priest. “Father Johns was always going on and on about how Jesus was going to be disappointed in us if we sinned or didn’t do enough charity, and the way he talked about JC made the Son of God seem more like a mean, pissy old lady than a rock star.”
Of course, all the chirpiness and optimism isn’t the complete picture. Our protagonist, after all, lives in a school bus with her alcoholic mother. Of the many emotions swirling through me as I read this book was a slight sense of shame because I was expecting the “truth” about Amber Appleton to come out. Granted, in fiction there has to be some sort of dramatic development to move the plot along, but it says something about me (and I’m sure about other readers) that we expect a shiny happy person to be taken down a peg or two.
At any rate, Amber can’t have been an easy character to pull off. She’s one a writer can fall in love with immediately, but the reader could find a bit too much if not handled correctly. Quick, though, manages to craft a young woman so vibrant, strong-willed and, yes, so wounded that you can’t help but pull for her.
Fans of his previous book, The Silver Linings Playbook, will also be pleased to find Quick’s love for whacky — and life-affirming — set pieces still intact. Whether she’s battling with geezers at the retirement home, taking down the school board or teaching the Korean Divas for Christ how to speak English via the songs of the Supremes, there’s a ton here to keep you laughing.
And woven through the whackyness are small moments of pain and beauty, all the more powerful because they’re used so sparingly. Perhaps most touching are Amber’s attempts to find the good in her mother. There are no scenes here of melodramatic battles between a teenage girl and her mom. Not even one. But Amber’s struggle with this relationship is downright heartbreaking at times.
Ultimately, though, the book’s heartbeat is hope. The word “hope” has been cheapened in the past couple of years by political marketing (and that marketing running smack dab into political reality), but hope runs so strong through this book that the word actually regains meaning.
There are plenty of reasons people read. I’ve got mine. You’ve got yours. But if you want to read a book that’s going to put a smile on your face and touch that Grinch heart of yours, Sorta Like a Rock Star is guaranteed to do the trick.