I used to post about older books a lot more. Somewhere along the way, though, in an effort to keep up with the never-ending supply of review copies and new books at the library (and new books that I buy!), that except for the rare special series, I've gotten away from that.
So, for the foreseeable future, anyway, I'm going to start covering older titles on Fridays. And what better way to start than with The Perks of Being a Wallflower?
August 25, 1991
I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn't try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don't try to figure out who she is because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don't want you to do that. I will call people by different names or generic names because I don't want you to find me. I didn't enclose a return address for the same reason. I mean nothing bad by this. Honest.
I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn't try to sleep with people even if they could have. I need to know that these people exist.
That second paragraph breaks my heart. Which is an impressive feat, breaking a reader's heart before she even really gets to know the narrator. (And yes, this was a re-read, but it'd been so long that I may as well have been going in completely cold.)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is, as you probably already know—at this point it's shifted, I think, from cult-classic status to modern-classic status—comprised of the letters that our narrator, Charlie, writes to an unnamed confidante over the course of his first year in high school. It's not surprising that it gets challenged again and again and again, as Charlie witnesses—and sometimes directly experiences—many of the very things that parents want to shield their children from: sexual assault, suicide, molestation. Add to that the empathetic and friendly portrayal of homosexuality, the profanity and the drug use, the frank talk about masturbation, and the brief mention of bestiality, and from some perspectives, I'm sure that the book looks like a veritable cornucopia of objectionable content.
The thing is, though—and the way that the book was embraced when it first came out, passed from hand to hand, locker to locker, backpack to backpack, backs me up on this—is that many adolescents not just want, but need to reflect on and talk about these things. Pretending they don't exist is impossible; we—and they—see them every day, if not in our own homes, then in the halls of our high schools or colleges, and certainly on tv.
But The Perks of Being a Wallflower isn't only about the scary things in our world: far from it. There are joys here—making deep and real connections with other people, loving them, feeling infinite—and those joys are every bit as important a part of Charlie's experience as the other parts. It's about a boy climbing out of darkness into the light, about finding his way from the fringes of life into a comfortable center, about a wallflower becoming a participant. And it's a book written with such honesty, that feels so profoundly human—to me, anyway—that even trying to articulate that feeling has me choked up and starting to cry.
So I'll just finish up by saying that it's a book in the same bloodline as The Catcher in the Rye, and deserves every bit of love that gets thrown its way.
BONUS POINTS: It's a book that stands up as literature, too, beyond its emotional impact: over the course of the book, Charlie's voice and writing style strengthens and changes and matures, but in a subtle and organic and believable way. It's so subtle, in fact, that it's almost undetectable as it happens, but if you finish the book and then immediately turn back to the beginning (as I did), it's quite striking.
Book source: Personal copy.