Friday, August 1, 2008

King of the Mild Frontier- Chris Crutcher

Crutcher, C. (2003).
King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography.
New York: Greenwillow Books (Harper Collins), 260 pp.

Autobiography

James Joyce comments on readers' interest in reading into the life of the author as the infatuation or idle gossip of schoolchildren. But, he adds, some of these schoolchildren grow up to be the scholars of the next day.

"Once you have read about Chris Crutcher's life as a dateless, broken-toothed, scabbed over, God-fearing dweeb, and once you have contemplated his ascension to the buckskin-upholstered throne of the King of the Mild Frontier, you will close this book, close your eyes and hold it to your chest, and say, 'I, too, can be an author.' Hell, anyone can." from the jacket

Crutcher takes us on a hilarious journey from the early childhood roots of his incredible anger through his unpredicted success as a young adult author much later in life. We hear of his boyhood shenanigans, adolescent humiliations and grown accomplishments as a therapist and writer. There are plenty of poignant moments, especially with regards to his totally unsuccesful courtships and failures in athletics, but the tone remains tragicomic throughout. Late in the story, he reveals the germ of his career as a writer as originating in a long string of English class plagarisms from the closet files of his older brother. Having failed to prepare a book report, he is forced to fabricate one at the very last minute just before school. Panicked, he decides to make up a book and storyline and then critique it as "the stupidest story I have ever read." He is racked with paranoia about getting caught, only to be rewarded with his first A- in his academic career. Another key passage concerns "To Kill a Mockingbird", the first book that he reads "without putting it down". "Mrs. Phelps didn't know it, but she had me. All she had to do was give me another book like that, but instead she gave me "Silas Mariner". . . my worst fears were realized. Only one good book had been written. And now I'd already read it" (219). These two stories key into his initial interest in writing and reading, despite the fact that he has usually been, confessedly, an unusually lazy and uninterested student.

Also of particular note is Crutcher's testimonial about censorship and language. "If I am to make characters real. . . I have to be willing to tell stories about the ruggedness of their lives. . . I never back off the truth as I see it, or the language required to tell it" (228).

In addition to coming to understand much more about Chris Crutcher and the autobiographical connections to many of his
books, we get to know a bit about his family and schoolmates in the little logging town of Cascade, Idaho. We learn why he swears he'll never marry in observing the fortress of intimidation and table manners that is his father, Crutch in rarely connected conjunction with his mother Jewell, the retreating Alcoholic whom he counsels and tries to save (a la Ben Wolf) when he should be outside playing. John, his tricky brother, is constantly tempting him into trouble with "you wanna try something neat", and his younger sister Candy is spared much responsibility for and reciprocal receipt of the author's humiliation. Teachers are prime subjects for ridicule, but his patients in therapy, young and old, are treated carefully and respectfully.

The plot and themes intertwine to demonstrate the growth of the author from anger to compassion, causing trouble to helping resolve it, and isolation to connection to a community and his audience. In this way, the book is of great value to adolescents and would-be authors alike. It is a true success story told from the point of view of a truly wild-hearted loser that evolves into the King of the Mild Frontier. Crutcher modifies his boyhood models of Heroism, coming to later glorify not personal success, but how individuals make the most of their failures. This is particularly effective after watching him fail so continuously and miserably. Adolescents can relate not only to his physical and cognitive difficulties as a young person, but also see his emotional and social maturation as it finally culminates in the celebrated person who has written the books that so many of them have come to enjoy.

Most of this story is told in chronological order of his life, with some translocations of anecdotes and some thematic chapters such as "Conversations with Gawd". Crutcher's comments on his religious development are particularly interesting given his status as one of the most-banned authors of all time. He goes from being tricked into perfect compliance with his Sunday school by being offered a prize (which turns out to be a cheap plastic trinket) to being put out in the hall for asking difficult questions about the Old Testament. Eventually he comes to express, "that nothing is fairer than life and that mysterious ways are mostly mysterious because of our ignorance" (126). The most disturbing answer he receives from his church involves the mark of Cain. The mark, he is told, corresponds to the color of and indicates the especially sinful heritage of Blacks. This answer causes him to seek (sane) assylum in another church, the Episcopalian, where he is counseled to interpret the Bible more as a literary than literal text. Another incident that involves racism comes much later, when he overhears his teammates in the lockerroom discussing the strategy of intentionally disabiling a black opponent in order to win a game. He expresses deep regret at not confronting these bigotted bruisers at this point, but takes up the cause through his written characters in "Running Loose", and again in "Deadline". Thus he illustrates the writer's role as the reviser of history and voice of conscience for future civilizations beyond his own.

Language is a "big fat shitburger" to Crutcher, and though he decides to "unf*ck" his first novel (losing 100 pages in the process), he defends his responsibility to present real characters in their true-to-life rugged manner of expression. He is even a little proud to be one of the most-banned authors of all time, since it alone places him historically on a list with both Twain and Vonnegut.

Gender and age struggle against one another in this coming of manhood (or not) tale. His scoutmaster even tells his mother he is a girl after a particularly pitiful outing. Social class is addressed in the form of his father's country club embarrassment and consequent fascistic concern with tablemanners. Exceptionality may be seen in physically pathetic Chris's failure at athletics, courtship, and wilderness training, not to mention being the world's biggest bawlbaby throughout his development.

I would use parts of this book for a read aloud, and recommend it for individual choice or small group reading. Even then I might require parental permission for readers, not because it is as disturbing as some YA titles, but because the liberal use of language, parody of his church and frequent reference to masturbation may bring out the torch and pitchfork segment of the local PTA in these parts.

Because of these issues, I would probably recommend this title for 11th or 12th graders, younger if parental consent was easy to secure. The language is not so much difficult to understand as possibly controversial.

Personally, I loved this book. You don't have to be Katy to develop a fondness for Crutcher through reading his story, and you don't have to be an author to realize how much valuable life and writing wisdom can be gleaned from "King of the Mild Frontier". I liked "Deadline", but I like this book even better. I loved Roald Dahl's autobiography "Boy" (which is also a great choice for young readers and writers), but I loved this one even more. I wholly recommend that future teachers check this one out.

1 comment:

bookworm said...

I think this would be very inspiring for the classroom. I bet a lot of young readers fear that they are too far behind to ever be good at reading or writing. If more teachers focus on successful writers who discovered their talents later in life then more students will believe in themselves. This is an issue I struggle with and hope to make that clear to my students. There is always room for improvement and a dash of comedy never hurts! Thanks, Katherine