By A.S. King
Published on October 22nd 2013
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Gerald Faust knows exactly when he started feeling angry: the day his mother invited a reality television crew into his five-year-old life. Twelve years later, he’s still haunted by his rage-filled youth—which the entire world got to watch from every imaginable angle—and his anger issues have resulted in violent outbursts, zero friends, and clueless adults dumping him in the special education room at school.
Nothing is ever going to change. No one cares that he’s tried to learn to control himself, and the girl he likes has no idea who he really is. Everyone’s just waiting for him to snap…and he’s starting to feel dangerously close to doing just that.
In this fearless portrayal of a boy on the edge, highly acclaimed Printz Honor author A.S. King explores the desperate reality of a former child “star” who finally breaks free of his anger by creating possibilities he never knew he deserved.
A.S. King has a way of crafting engaging contemporary novels that are impossible for me to put down, no matter what the subject matter is. I was a big fan of 2012's Ask the Passengers, so I was eager to read Reality Boy. Telling the story of Gerald, a teenager still struggling to over come his reality TV infamy from when he was just five years old, King excels at examining dysfunctional family dynamics, bullying, and our reality TV saturated culture.
While the reader gets much greater insight into Gerald's mind, since the story is told from his perspective, he is a bit of an enigma to people around him. He keeps himself separate from people his age to try to insulate himself from people at school, who still tease him over things he did on TV when he was five. He keeps himself separate from his family to try to insulate himself from a the dysfunction there. He keeps himself separate from the girl he has a crush on to try to insulate himself from the rejection he's sure to experience at her hands. He is full of anger and every day is a constant struggle to keep from acting out and hurting someone else, or himself.
King captures the bleak landscape of Gerald's life expertly. I don't know how she manages to so perfectly write a horrifically dysfunctional family so well, with all the ways that abuse gets hidden and ignored in order to preserve the image of being a well-adjusted family. The glimpses into his home life -- both present-day and in flashbacks to his time on the "Network Nanny" TV show -- are heartbreaking and terrifying, and are revealed in slow increments as the book progresses. As always, what viewers see on TV rarely tells even a fraction of the story, so Gerald gets to be known for the outrageous ways that he acted on the show, and no one ever sees the abuse, trauma, and neglect he suffered every day.
His romance with Hannah is sweet and takes its time to develop. Gerald doesn't trust people easily, and neither does Hannah, and it takes a lot for the two of them to start getting past each others' walls. They have lots of ups and downs over the course of the book, because neither of them are very good communicators, but they both challenge each other to open up, even as they come up with a ridiculous, half-baked idea to leave behind their own crappy lives. In real life, I don't know that I would like Gerald very much, at least, not until he fully deals with his angry, violent impulses, but on the page I felt great empathy for him because of his situation. He wants to make his life better, he's just stuck and confused as to how to get to "better", and the book showcases that journey of self-discovery for him.
A.S. King's books always seem to have a dash of magical realism in them. When Gerald realizes he can't physically act out anymore -- not unless he wants to go to jail for hurting someone, at least -- he finds other ways to escape, namely, he just envisions himself in a better world on another day, which he calls Gersday. The dissociation gets more complex and bizarre as the story goes on. It's a defense mechanism and a means of escape, where he can imagine everything is just the way he wants it. It's worked for him this long, but with Hannah, it starts to cause problems.
I read Reality Boy very quickly, over the course of a handful of hours, and I definitely did not want to stop until I finished. As with Ask the Passengers, I wasn't completely satisfied by the ending, as it felt like things wrapped up a little too neat and clean for the way the rest of the story went, but it was nice to leave the story feeling hopeful for Gerald and Hannah, two people who really did deserve something better in life.
To file under the "problematic things this character says/does, but which don't necessarily mean the book/author are problematic" category, there's a bit of an extended metaphor where Gerald talks about putting on his "war paint" and imagining himself as a chieftain, to get through the day, which is a metaphor that appropriates Native American traditions. There's also a passage where Gerald talks about his "slave name" and his life as slavery, which felt uncomfortable to me. (We have no indication that Gerald is either Native American or African American.) Also, there is liberal use of the "r-word" to describe not only developmentally challenged people, but in general things that are stupid. Hannah calls Gerald out on his inappropriate use of the word, and rightly so. There is a lot of bullying and physical violence in this book, as well as references to sexual activity (nothing explicit or crude) and underage drinking.
I thought the topic of this one was an interesting look at reality TV. I know that I have sat back and watched Supernanny and other similar shows, partly horrified by the kids' antics, and partly entertained by the absurdity of it all. I don't know that I've ever sat back and thought about how the widely watched shows might affect the families later down the road, but in this day and age where nothing ever truly disappears, it's certainly realistic that embarrassing things one does as a small child will follow you around for life. I definitely will find myself thinking a bit more critically before sitting down to watch shows like that in the future.