Kevin Phifer, 13, a black seventh-grader in 1990s Richmond, Va., and hero of this sparkling debut, belongs in the front ranks of fiction’s hormone-addled, angst-ridden adolescents, from Holden Caulfield to the teenage Harry Potter.
Kevin wants a fade, thinking the stylish haircut will bolster his shaky standing in the cutthroat world of middle school, where he’s just one friend away from eating lunch alone. But his mother, a church secretary and solo parent studying for a nursing degree at night, won’t even try. Expressing his frustration leads to a week’s grounding. Tyrell and his entourage of bullies make Kevin’s life miserable at school. In science lab, Aisha, girl of Kevin’s dreams, points out his “mushy tushy.” Sandbagged by dizzyingly abrupt mood shifts, Kevin hurtles from altruism to craven self-interest, mature self-knowledge to wild fantasy. His anchor in rough seas is Uncle Paul, a quiet, manly museum security guard. Weary of hiding his sexual orientation, Paul’s recently come out to family and friends but has yet to tell Kevin, for whom “faggot” is the worst insult there is. Paul’s perspective, with its temporal and social context, enriches and deepens the narrative, offering an effective contrast to Kevin’s volatile reality, where “now” is all that counts.
Original, hilarious, thought-provoking and wicked smart: not to be missed. (Historical fiction. 12 & up)