Mr. Popularity: King of the Screwups

A Review of King of the Screwups by K.L. Going

Harcourt, 2009

By REBECCA, March 19, 2012

characters

Liam Geller: handsome, popular, and extremely sincere, he just wants his dad to love him

Allan Geller: Liam’s father, he is cruel and judgmental and totally screws Liam up

Sarah Geller: Liam’s mother, a boutique-owner and former model

Darleen: Girl next door, totally uncharmed by Liam no matter what he does

Uncle Pete: Liam’s uncle, an aging glam-rock dj who lives in a trailer near his boyfriend and close friends/bandmates:

Eddie: Pete’s friend/bandmate, owner of a local clothing store

Dino: Pete’s friend/bandmate, burly police officer

Orlando: Pete’s boyfriend/bandmate, a high school teacher and down-to-earth guy

hook

Liam has made it, as far as high school life goes: he’s handsome, stylish, popular, good at sports, and fun. But everything he does disappoints and infuriates his businessman father. Finally, his father kicks him out of the house and Liam goes to live with his uncle, Pete. In a new school, Liam decides that maybe he can reinvent himself into someone his father could respect . . . and maybe even love?

worldview

When I first read the blurb for King of the Screwups I thought that it would be something of a comedy of manners—you know, handsome popular boy tries to be nerdy but everything backfires because he’s so cool. Kind of like the scene in Mean Girls when Regina wears her tank top with nipple-holes cut out and the next day everyone’s wearing them? Anyway, I was prepared to be a little bit charmed by this. BUT: that is not at all what King of the Screwups is. It’s so much better.

For as long as Liam can remember, he’s disappointed his father. He hasn’t gotten good grades, he’s more interested in fashion than in school, he gets caught making out with a girl on his father’s desk, etc. Liam’s father is nothing but nasty to him, constantly making him feel inadequate and unworthy of being his son. What becomes clear as these episodes accrete is that Liam’s father has been extremely emotionally abusive, not only criticizing Liam’s behavior but also leaving him with the sense that anything he tries will surely fail.

Liam’s uncle, Pete, is instrumental in encouraging Liam that his father is an asshole and that he is capable of succeeding at things. Don’t worry, though: this is not a kind of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy story in which Pete’s only function is to prop up Liam’s ego. Rather, Liam and Pete’s relationship is great: they help each other, worry each other, and bicker, in just the right ratio. All of K.L. Going‘s characters are rich and well-developed, but I found Pete and his friends particularly successful. They’ve been friends since high school, are in a long-standing glam-rock band, and they clearly hang out all the time. They have the easy manner and shorthand of people who have been friends for a long time, and their comfort with each other throws Liam’s discomfort with himself into high relief.

Oh, Liam, what am I going to do with you? You’re so clearly screwed up from a lifetime of your suckfest dad ragging on you, but you have so much to offer. I want you to be a fashionisto and make the world better through style! But I don’t want you to hang out with people who only love you because you’re beautiful and cool, like the lamers at your school. You aren’t shallow or anything, you just really love aesthetics. And that’s ok! Maybe you and your mom could run the boutique together . . .

When Liam moves in with Pete, we get to see what a sweet kid he is. His attempts to try and be unpopular are sincere and kind of desperate—that’s how badly he wants to prove to his father that he’s not a screwup, and prove to Darleen that he doesn’t just skate by on his looks. He tells Darleen:

“You have just made a lot of assumptions and . . . suppositions . . . and enacted a discriminating ritual based on wrong, er, information. I am not popular at all, actually. I’m really very unpopular. Wildly unpopular” (84).

And he really tries to be. Predictably, the things that Liam does in an attempt to be uncool get recoded as cool. Going does an admirable job in these scenes: this is not just an exposure of the construction or hypocrisy of cool; it’s the exploration of how Liam is as helpless and out of control in the face of his popularity as the members of the AV club are in their unpopularity.

what was this book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

“Just a derangement of the tear duct. Nothing sinister, I assure you.”

Listen, y’all: I’m not sure what was with me, but I wept my way through this book. Liam consistently reaches out to people only to have them dismiss him; people value him for superficial reasons; he is so genuine, but people think he’s glib; he does totally put his foot in his mouth; and the scenes in English class . . . the book just killed me. In a good way.

“‘I just hope you aren’t trying to be someone you’re not [Pete says]. That’s something I’ve always tried not to do. A lot of people say, hey, why do you live in a dumpy old trailer in a small hick town, but you know what? That’s me. I like my job; I like my friends; I like my band . . . and you’ve got to be true to what you like. No one else.’

I nod, but the whole time Aunt Pete’s talking I’m thinking about the red dress, wondering why he doesn’t wear it anymore if he’s so liberated. If there’s one thing I actually know about, it’s clothes, and Aunt Pete’s boring old T-shirts and jeans are not him” (89).

Liam uses the vocabulary of fashion to give insights into characters and into his own moods and intentions throughout the book. This is such a smart tactic on Going’s part: it reveals Liam’s character and thought-processes while also providing great descriptions and avoiding easy clichés. Overall, King of the Screwups was not only a success but, in O.W.L. terms, far exceeded my expectations.

image: etsylojewelry.blogspot.com

King of the Screwups is a great addition to contemporary YA realism: interesting characters that you have not seen before, complex psychologies, sadness, humor. And the prose is good. Nothing flashy, just very assured and compelling writing. My favorite thing about Going’s prose is that, although Liam is the narrator, the writing feels very objective—that is, it’s first-person that reads like third-person. I never found myself annoyed with Liam’s blindness, even when it was clear that he was misjudging a situation. And, for all that it’s a really emotional book, it isn’t sappy.

The end of the book felt a little rushed—it moves right from a very quick comedown after the climax to a very short epilogue—and I think it could have done with a few more chapters for pacing. Also because I was desperately sad that it was over.

personal disclosure

kitty!: Dorian Gray

Confession: while writing this review I was looking through the book, trying to find examples of scenes to show you all how great it is and I got so caught up in it that I forgot I was supposed to be skimming for an example and ended up reading like 50 pages. Then my cat jumped on top of the book and started licking my glasses, so I got back to business. In any case, here is a glimpse, much though the cat tried to prevent me from sharing it with you. Part of what I like about King of the Screwups is how each scene flows into the next, so you feel like you’re right there with Liam. Liam is asked to write an essay in English class about what the best part of his summer was:

“Crap. There’s no way I can write about that. My summer sucked. There was no best part. I got grounded immediately, and Mom was going to take me to Milan for a fashion show but Dad said no. Actually, I heard them fighting and what he said was, ‘It’s not worth going all that way just to take Liam.’

I’ve got to think of something, so I write, ‘The best part of my entire summer was the party at Mike’s house.’ Then I erase it because actually I got drunk, ended up sleeping with Andrea, who later told everyone it had been a mistake. . . .

I chew the top of my pencil and decide I hate essays. . . . Eventually, I write, ‘The best part of my entire summer is when I went to Hawaii to see my friend Julio.’ Only, when I got home I overheard Mom talking to Dad and she said, ‘You only sent him to Hawaii because you don’t want to look at him anymore.’ I erase that too.

Then I put my head down on my desk” (75).

readalikes

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (2010). Although King of the Screwups is in no way as funny as WG,WG (nor is it trying to be), they both feature dudes who are down on themselves and need some serious TLC. Insert a “don’t go chasing waterfalls” joke of your choice here (did I just really date myself?).

Bruiser by Neal Shusterman (2010). Bruiser has the opposite problem as Liam does; this is the mysterious story of a boy who can never have friends.

Stick by Andrew Smith (2011). When Stick’s abusive father finds out that his older brother, Bosten is gay, Bosten has to leave home for his safety. Stick sets off on a grueling road trip to find Bosten. My full review of Stick is here.

procured from: the library

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11 Comments

  1. I haven’t heard of this book and I am so glad you’ve reviewed it because it sounds like a fantastic book and I have to read it soon, soon, soon!

    Reply
    • Oh, great! Yeah, I get sad when great books fall through the cracks—let me know what you think!

      Reply
  2. This book sounds so good! I loved this review 🙂 However your cat is hideous. It’s not easy to look at an animal that homely.

    Reply
    • Porkchop, I think you would really like it, yes. Yeah, I took pity on the cat and let her come live with me because I knew other people would never adopt her since she’s so un-cute. (Just kidding, Dorian, I love you!)

      Reply
  3. Margalit

     /  March 19, 2012

    Great review. It does seem as if, in a less skillful hand than Going’s, Liam might have been rendered more annoying/frustrating. As it is, I like him already! And “first-person that reads like third-person” is a great description of something that’s pretty hard to accomplish. The examples of Liam’s parents’ conversations were just heart-breaking!

    Reply
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