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THUMBSUCKER by Walter Kirn

THUMBSUCKER

By Walter Kirn

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-385-49709-1
Publisher: Broadway

A funny and engagingly original portrayal of adolescence in eruption: an accomplished second novel from the author of My Hard Bargain (1990) and She Needed Me (1992) who has also made his mark as a prominent freelance reviewer.

Kirn's likable protagonist and narrator is 16-year-old Justin Cobb of suburban Shandstrom Falls, Minnesota, dubbed ``the King Kong of oral obsessive'' by the family dentist, who only partially succeeds in breaking Justin of the embarrassing habit he's retained since infancy. Ritalin helps, but it's overmatched by the many confusions the Cobb family's lively behavior continually engenders. Younger brother Joel (an unfortunately sketchily drawn figure) is a conventional teenaged athletic prodigy. The boys beautiful mother Audrey, who works as a part-time nurse helping the rich and famous dry out and sober up, fantasizes a romantic friendship with TV heartthrob Don Johnson. And father Mike is a wonderful character: former football star and inveterate jock-worshiper, he's a bizarre manic-depressive mixture of stoic, bully, chronic whiner, conscientious parent and provider. Kirn takes Justin through an episodic succession of generic rites of passage drugs, rebellion against authority, borderline-sexual initiation but the novel distances itself from the ever-increasing hundreds of Catcher in the Rye imitations through Kirns respect for the individual distinctions, as well as the idiosyncrasies, of this utterly disarming nuclear family. Justin is, of all things, a gifted debater who stars on his schools ``speech team'' while loosely preparing himself ``to become a TV issues-analyst and stir the nation with controversial insights. And the Cobb family's embattled embrace of the Mormon faith occasions a neatly linked series of bittersweet comic scenes climaxed by Justin's matured determination, simply, to become the person he is: warts, thumbsucking, and all.

One of the year's most charming books. Kirn has little to fear from fellow reviewers. Most of them should love Thumbsucker.