A teenager struggling with mental illness bonds with a classmate and his philosophy teacher in Harnisch’s (Porcelain Utopia, 2016, etc.) latest novel.
After Ben Schreiber enters Wakefield Academy, his new boarding school, “Georgie Gust,” his angry alter ego, takes over. The school’s popular crowd, particularly its athletes, mock the oddball newcomer’s behavior, including his twitching caused by Tourette’s syndrome. The boy seeks escape in alcohol and, at one point, engages in anonymous sex with two girls he meets at a local bar. Yet the teenager also has other, sweeter experiences, which he relates in the first person, including in diary entries addressed to a “Dr. C.” He forms connections with Claudia, an “attractive, conservative, troubled girl” dating the school’s top jock, and Heidi, his encouraging philosophy class instructor. He hangs out with Claudia at the cliffs near the school, as well as at the town street fair, and she even allows him to kiss her. Thanks to Heidi’s support, he gains the confidence to compete for the Winterbourne, a student essay contest that his parents would like him to win, as its prize money would pay for college. Claudia and Heidi are also in mourning: Claudia’s policeman father committed suicide some time ago, and Heidi’s sister with cerebral palsy recently died. By novel’s end, Ben has made significant progress but also suffers a shocking loss. Harnisch, who acknowledges his own schizoaffective disorder, has written several other novels featuring Ben Schreiber. This latest iteration tones down the erotica of past permutations, which have included an adult Claudia serving as a torturer-for-hire. The result here is a more palatable tale of teens that offers a striking snapshot of mental illness, as well as some sympathetic secondary characters. Unfortunately, although this impressionistic narrative effectively reflects Ben’s fractured mental state, it also feels incomplete, as 14 pages are taken up by synopses and chapter breakdowns; it also leaves several plot points unexplained, including who “Dr. C” is and how much other characters are aware of Ben’s condition.
An arresting, if underdeveloped, depiction of teen angst and mental disorders.