Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
review by Tessa
Greg Gaines (me)(“me”): self-loathing protag, haver of anxious mental belches, appreciator of slug-like cats
Earl Jackson (Earl): short and often mad (because of being short? and the whole broken home thing?) but also smart and funny and a cowriter/director of homemade films with Greg Gaines
Rachel Kushner (Dying Girl): nice sick girl
Madison Hartnett: nice hot girl
My personal hook / disclosure / digression:
This book is set in Pittsburgh and written by a Pittsburgher and moreover it has been universally (among the librarians I know and, I’m sure, other people) acclaimed as very funny and so great and I should read it have I read it yet? It’s so funny! And, and… Pittsburgh! (The guy from Tram’s is even in here.)
(But you don’t have to know Pittsburgh to like this book.)
And as luck and event planning would have it, Jesse Andrews spoke at a work event where I got to hear his (funny, self-deprecating) speech and got a free copy of this book, which had by then been built up so much I decided to save it for the right time.
When I woke up last night with anxiety-induced night sweats, I knew that it must be the right time for a funny cancer book. Set in Pittsburgh.
Were you right?
Yes. This book was like eating magical candy that somehow never makes you feel sick to your stomach. It made me immediately less anxious through pure reading delight.
Aside: Perhaps inevitably it’s been getting compared to the other big YA cancer book this year by John Green, which if you haven’t heard of it I’ve helpfully reviewed it on this very blog. That book is called The Fault in Our Stars and is a romantic love story, and is by an author with a big following, writing his first book with a female protagonist, with people waiting to see if he could do it. This one is called Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, it’s about friendship love and self-love (and jokes about self-love, you know, that other kind) by a first time author.
One could set this up as a competition, but let’s not. They’re both great books and they actually work well together. There’s room enough for at least two good realistic books that happen to feature cancer-stricken characters in their teens.
But will I cry?
You probably won’t sob (unless you’re a mom). You probably will laugh a lot, and cringe, and feel twinges in your heartstrings at certain points. Your tear glands may moisten. Or not, you emotionless freak.
But what’s the story already Tessa and why should I read it?
Greg Gaines is a senior who thinks he’s mastered the art of being invisible by trying to please everyone a little bit but not so much that they become friends. He’s painfully self-aware of himself as a person who should not be seen, but is not so self-aware that he can accept himself and be comfortable. He has one real friend, Earl Jackson, and despite coming from separate racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, they were brought together by the greatest force of ecstatic truth on earth, Werner Herzog.
Since realizing that they are the only two eleven-year-olds who get Aguirre, the Wrath of God, they have gone on to watch many more arthouse films. Their interest in film also extends to making movies influenced by their favorite directors — films that no one else is allowed to see because they’re not good enough yet. But the descriptions give the reader enough of a glimpse into the madcap, sock-puppet workings that it is possible to imagine how seriously silly and wonderfully non sequitur filled they must be.
Greg once had an awkward friendship with a girl named Rachel in Hebrew School during sixth grade, a friendship based on him trying to make another girl jealous. The end of the friendship, consisting as it did of a series of increasingly unaccepted invitations to come over and hang out with her, was never really resolved, but now Rachel has leukemia and Greg’s mother and Rachel’s mother think that having Greg be friends with Rachel again would be the best possible thing to cheer Rachel up, as parents are immune to knowing when their ideas are terrible and wrong and embarrassing.
Because Greg is writing this story, it never swerves into Maudlintown. In fact, it circles Maudlintown on the map and tells you all the ways it will never ever go there. Andrews makes good use of bullet points, stage direction, script dialogue, and many many raunchy, profanity-filled asides to ensure that the reader is bouncing around the brain of a distractible teenage boy with imagination to spare and nowhere yet to put it in the world.
I wish I could quote you so much from the book, but everything I want to quote leads to something else that is insanely quotable, so you should just read the book yourself. (But the subtitle of this post is one of my favorite chapter titles in the book, so you know). Andrews makes his chapters vignette-like but strung together with the momentum of the buried thought of death, so that you can be three quarters of the way finished before you look up from the page.
If I had a criticism it would be that we don’t get to see Rachel as a person that much, but I also think that it’s because Greg himself can’t fully see Rachel. She’s too good of a listener and he’s too eager to perform for her, and too scared to get into a real conversation (and maybe she is, too? There’s no way to tell.) That’s all true to his narration and to the story arc. It even adds to the exploration of friendship that the book ends up being (and I really love that this is a book about friendship, if I haven’t explicitly said that yet).
Of course Greg and Earl’s films get entangled with the downhill slide of Rachel’s disease, and as much as Greg hates it, as much as it is humiliating and painful and requires him to stop lying on his floor pretending to be dead, he has to learn and grow a little bit and actually voice his feelings out loud. And the way it happens for him is very much like life is: too fast and too full of hindsight.
I look forward to reading more from him, and there’s this tease of a vlog theme song on his tumblr:
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
This is a college coming of age story published for the adult market and is definitely more mature in its subject matter (but maybe not its themes?). But there are some echoes of it in the undercurrents of Andrews’ book, I swear.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
For the humor and the trying to be invisible and failing.
Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares
Ha ha! Just kidding. But it does have filmmaking AND leukemia.