A review of Reality Boy by A.S. King
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2013
by REBECCA, February 27, 2014
When Gerald Faust was five years old, he was a reality television star—well, villain—known for throwing angry tantrums and pooping all over the house. He was called “the Crapper.” Now Gerald is seventeen. Still angry, but trying desperately to control it and have a normal life, Gerald can’t seem to leave his bad-boy image behind—or his old nickname.
Gerald and his older sister, Tasha, were featured on the reality show, Network Nanny (like Supernanny), in which a fake nanny tried to teach them better behavior. Gerald pooped places when he was upset, sure, but Tasha was constantly provoking him and then making it look like she was innocent. Tasha, Gerald is sure, is a psychopath. Gerald was an angry kid who got into trouble and couldn’t make friends.
Now, though, he’s seventeen and everyone still thinks of him as the Crapper. Kids at school call him retarded because he’s been so unable to focus in regular classes because of his temper; people recognize him where he works, serving snacks at the local convention center, and ask him if he crapped in the food; and now Tasha, his number one trigger, has moved back into their parents basement, and has aggressively timed loud sex with her boyfriend when the whole family is just upstairs in the kitchen.
Reality Boy follows the same narrative structure of A.S. King’s Please Ignore Vera Dietz, which I reviewed a few months ago. We alternate between moving through two narrative timelines: we begin from Gerald in the present, soon after Hannah, the girl he’s crushing on but refuses to talk to, begins working with him. Alongside that, we move through the episodes of Network Nanny and Gerald’s stint as the Crapper. It’s a beautifully constructed narrative, with the two storylines sparking resonances between them as more and more pieces are revealed.
Gerald’s plight is heartbreaking. He is trying desperately to move forward and remake himself while the whole world—and especially his sister—is trying to hold him to the image that they had of him more than a decade ago. He is trying hard to work through his anger—not just the anger he had as a kid that landed him on the show to begin with, but the anger he still feels at his parents for basically pimping him out for reality TV money. And, now that Tasha’s back, he has to deal with his anger at her and also at his parents for letting her terrorize the entire family.
It’s the writing that’s the real star of Reality Boy for me. Gerald’s voice is painful and funny and raw. Here’s the description Gerald gives of himself on page one, describing a time when his mom left him in a dressing room while she went to get pants:
“To protest having to wait, or having to try on pants, or having to have a mother like her, I dropped one right there between the wicker chair and the stool where Mom’s purse was. . . .
You all watched and gasped and put your hands over your eyes as three different cameramen caught three different angles of me squeezing one out on the living room coffee table, next to the cranberry-scented holiday candle ensemble. Two guys held boom mikes. They tried to keep straight faces, but they couldn’t. One of them said, ‘Push it out, kid!”‘He just couldn’t help himself. I was so entertaining.
Wasn’t I? . . .
Now I’m a junior in high school. And every kid in my class has seen forty different angles of me crapping various places when I was little. They call me the Crapper. When I complained to the adults in my life back in middle school, they said, ‘Fame has its downside.’
Fame? I was five.”
A.S. King manages to capture precisely the cocktail of grotesque humor, humiliation, and shame that makes reality television so abject. The details of Gerald’s story are so ridiculous that it’s difficult to look at their effects without giggling, so the trauma he went through as a result of Network Nanny and the terrorization he experiences at the hands of his sister are easily minimized. It’s masterfully done: I laughed, I cried, I cursed reality-TV-culture, I laughed again.
The weak spot in Reality Boy is what I find to be the weak spot in so many stand-out contemporary YA reads: the romance. Gerald is drawn to his co-worker, Hannah, and they begin a slow dance of acquaintance that leads to more. Now, there’s the most basic problem, which I think is just a matter of taste: I really disliked Hannah. I found her obnoxious, manipulative, and annoying. But the bigger problem was that the emotional texture of Gerald’s first love with Hannah didn’t feel markedly different from the emotional texture of the rest of the book. It was, for Gerald, equally frustrating, upsetting, traumatizing, and confusing—even though moments of it were certainly appealing. For the reader, then, it felt like a tip of the hat to a genre knee-jerk: first love changes course of young protagonist’s life. I could absolutely have done without it because I didn’t think it added much to the story, besides using Hannah’s family troubles as an example of how many different ways there are to have a fucked up home-life. But I think we already know that.
In its place, I would have loved to see more of Gerald’s relationship with his family, especially his other sister, who seems like she could have an interesting perspective to shed on the family dynamic. Disappointment in the romantic interlude aside, though, Reality Boy was a smart, funny, touching exploration of serious issues against the backdrop of a reality TV excoriation.
For a great list of other YA books that feature reality TV, check out Kelly’s post about this mini-trend over at Stacked.
Just Listen by Sarah Dessen (2006). While the tone of these two books isn’t terribly similar, Owen in Just Listen is a super angry dude who depends on techniques of anger management to get through the day. In his case, honesty is tantamount to dealing with things. And honesty is something Annabel has a really hard time with. Whereas Owen couldn’t control his anger, she holds all hers inside. Together, they can each teach the other their coping techniques, and maybe find love in the process. My full review is HERE.
Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian (2013). Another story of a boy trying to be a new version of himself in the aftermath of a very different kind of trauma. Sex & Violence excavates Evan Carter’s new life as the new kid in a rural town where he’s moved with his father after leaving boarding school. Like Gerald, he’s trying to distance himself from who he was in the hopes of becoming a better version of himself. Check out my complete review HERE.
procured from: the library