James Vachowshi’s OUTSPOKEN

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If you like smart-alecky, underdog, anti-establishment teen characters as much as I do, you should check out James Vachowski’s OUTSPOKEN (Vagabondage Press, 2012). Following a successful e-pub run, OUTSPOKEN recently came out in print.

The story is a clever high school political drama that reminded me of Robert Cormier’s classic THE CHOCOLATE WAR, albeit significantly updated for our time.

High school senior Abraham Lincoln Jenkins is an overachieving Black student, born of the projects and a troubled, single mother. His life’s dream is to go to Harvard and escape the intellectual mediocrity of Charleston, South Carolina. With his preternatural academic record and drive, Abraham gets an early acceptance letter. The only problem is: he overlooked the fact that to graduate from high school, he needs two credits in phys ed. That problem gets worse when he’s assigned to a Junior ROTC class to fulfill the credits.

Abraham’s discontents with the world are far-ranging – racial-profiling, U.S. foreign policy, the lack of motivation within his own low-income community – and being forced to take part in a military organization is the perfect circumstance to set off his sarcastic and well-articulated ire.

The story is told, very funnily and effectively, through a series of hyper-eloquent letters from Abraham to various authorities, in pursuit of waiving his phys ed requirement, and later, grieving the many policies of Junior ROTC that are an assault his freedoms (and those of everyone else in the world, to Abraham’s view). The tone is perfectly adolescent, perfectly indignant and perfectly venomous. It took me back to my own teenage years when Injustice felt like the air surrounding me.

Woven through Abraham’s letters are contemporary issues like U.S. militarism, the corruption of public education by soft drink companies, and gay rights to name a few, but I wouldn’t call OUTSPOKEN a political novel necessarily. Abraham’s views on these matters are certainly left of center, but few on any point of the spectrum are spared from his literary indictment, including the United Negro College Fund, which he sees as patronizing.

Further, Abraham’s carefully-worded appeals to liberal causes such as the National Organization for Women come off with such self-interest and underhanded collusion, he exposes himself as just as much of a hypocrite as the right-winters he despises. It’s really a skewering of American politics in general, a la Tom Wolfe’s BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES or Christopher Bram’s GOSSIP.

Yet it was hard for me not to root for young Abraham, even after reading his ridiculously arrogant letter declining an offer of acceptance from Princeton.

“I would like to congratulate you on the prestigious honor of remaining one of my top-ranked safety schools…If I happen to hear of any other students within my failing public school whose SAT scores are anywhere near mine, rest assured that I will refer them to your institution.”

This is a teen character who is a lot of fun to follow.

For more about James Vachowski, check out his site.

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