18 March 2013

Better Nate to Come?

Tim Federle’s Better Nate Than Never is a novel for tween readers that fills a particular niche: a story of a stagestruck boy that deals almost openly with being gay. In other words, Nate’s sexuality is obvious to readers, and as a thirteen-year-old narrator he’s only a hair’s breadth away from acknowledging it.

(Which is more than the New York Times Book Review could do; actor Bob Balaban’s recommendation of the book dares not speak of that aspect.)

Some years back I wrote about the gay reading of Susan Cooper’s 1999 novel King of Shadows, also the story of a teen-aged actor far from home. But that book downplays homosexuality when it comes to the young hero and William Shakespeare.

Better Nate Than Never is more a novel of our time. And I suspect that it will become dated rather quickly. It’s perched at a moment when Nokia cell phones are present but unfashionable and iPhones still something special. Brand names like that are ubiquitous in teenagers’ lives, but writers are advised to avoid them because they can change quickly and date a book. In another five years Nate’s book-length quest for a Nokia charger could be as quaint as a character using a payphone.

More problematic for me was the novel’s plotting. The story involves Nate running away to New York to audition for the lead in a musical production of E.T. Not once but twice, and possibly three times at the end, the storyline turns on the show’s producers calling that Nokia cell phone to say that they’ve completely changed their minds since the last time we heard from them. Perhaps this is how the theater business works, but each additional shift in this novel seems more like a convenience for the sake of a sudden plot twist.

As for other plot elements, page 28 tells us that Nate’s father had an affair the previous winter, and that never comes up again. A religious backstory pops up on page 178, two-thirds of the way through the book, with no follow-up. Nate’s mother has a drinking problem that’s crucial to resolving the plot yet not introduced until page 228.

Author Tim Federle knows the milieu of his book well: like Nate, he grew up in greater Pittsburgh and lit out for Broadway. But his training is in acting, not fiction, and this was his first novel. Better Nate Than Never will undoubtedly speak to some readers more than anything else on the children’s shelf right now, and that rarity gives it value. But I suspect that, just as the next big thing in smartphones is on its way, there will soon be better constructed middle-grade novels taking the same stage. Perhaps even the upcoming sequel to this book from Tim Federle.

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