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Book Review: Teenager by Bud Smith

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Book Review: Teenager by Bud Smith


Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Teenager by Bud Smith. (Vintage)

Bud Smith has been writing for quite a while in the small press world. He’s made a name for himself as well as a loyal following with his handful of books. His simple and direct approach to prose isn’t atypical or totally out there, but regardless, all Bud Smith books sound like Bud Smith. It’s a weird paradox because of the simplicity of it, but he’s clearly found a rhythm and style that works, and it sounds distinctively like him, which—in the end—is all most of us writers could ever hope for.

Teenager opens with a jailbreak. Kody is a 17-year-old kid letting love guide him through life. Tella is a girl whose home life isn’t great, so she’s primed to pull up the stakes and follow someone who sincerely loves her. And so, in a passionate moment, Kody kills Tella’s parents and they run away together. What follows is their attempt to make it across the United States fueled by love and curiosity.

During this pivotal moment in their lives, they’re creating their very own American dream. At the same time, Tella’s brother, Neil, hears about the murder of his parents and goes AWOL from the military. This sets him on a cross-country mission to save his sister and, very likely, put a bullet or two into Kody’s head.

This is a story we’ve seen before, whether it’s Bonnie and Clyde, True Romance, Badlands, or something else. It’s not breaking ground when it comes to young lovers hitting the road because of their crimes. Still, Teenager sounds so much like Bud Smith that the execution feels fresh. For me, at least, it’s a tried-and-true story that has been proven to work, but now it has Smith’s voice and prose elements on top of it.

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Kody is an unreliable character, making stories up about his past to inflate his own ego and image. But he’s also a character who is continually shit on by society and he’s aware of how the world perceives him in his true form. His tall tales and exaggerations are a defense mechanism against continually being looked down upon.

There is something raw and engaging about watching this kid do his best to try and prove himself against a futile position in life. It’s funny that he puffs himself up in this way because the only person he cares about already sees him as he is and loves him for it. Is Bud Smith making a bigger statement about the world and how we interact with one another? He could be, for sure. At the same time, I don’t think a grand statement matters one way or the other, because this quiet love that Tella harbors for Kody is enough.

Something else I found compelling in Teenager were the discussions surrounding religion. There is a scene where Kody wanders into a church and sparks up a conversation with a priest. This is a brief moment in the book, but I feel like it sets up the spiritual undertones of the story. Kody is looking for some guidance and, while he has questions, the priest doesn’t necessarily give him the answers he’s looking for. The priest speaks in a matter-of-fact tone that simultaneously is firm in its confidence, but also has a gentleness that encourages more questions. This interaction effectively shows Kody that it’s okay to have questions and not know the answers to everything.

There is something raw and engaging about watching this kid do his best to try and prove himself against a futile position in life. It’s funny that he puffs himself up in this way because the only person he cares about already sees him as he is and loves him for it.

Later on, there’s a discussion around the dinner table about Jesus’s ability to turn bread into fish. I think a lot of our current-day Christianity is a bastardized form of what it professes to be, and we see a reflection of that during the debate in this scene. The tact that Smith employs in writing about this shines a light on what a religious leader should be. The welcoming nature of the first priest juxtaposed with the harshness of the second priest shows the ideal in conflict with the reality. We know Kody isn’t a great, or even a good person, but we also know he’s flawed in ways that are outside his control. Adding this spiritual layer expands the story, strengthening and deepening the overall effects of these characters.

At a certain point I asked myself, What’s the point? And I guess the meandering road trip is the point of Teenager. We’re conditioned to expect stories to have a clear direction, and so it’s nice to break out of that, especially with something that is so real. Kody is constantly thinking the grass is going to be greener and is continually disappointed. That’s why he left Montana and then immediately started thinking about better places than Los Angeles pretty much the moment they got there. He has a romantic, idealized version of the world, but that’s not how life works, unfortunately, and so he’s constantly floating and drifting to the next dream only to be discouraged by reality.

The only thing Kody doesn’t seem to tire of is Tella. And that depiction of love is all we need. In the end, that is the point.

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Joseph Edwin Haeger is the author of Learn to Swim, a memoir published by University of Hell Press.


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Joseph Edwin Haeger

Joseph Edwin Haeger is the author of Learn to Swim (University of Hell Press, 2015). His writing has appeared in The Pacific NW Inlander, RiverLit, Hippocampus Magazine, and others. He lives in Spokane, Washington with his wife and son.

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