Oddball review – a sublime anti-authoritarian tale

M even though he’s only a 15-year-old boy, it feels like he could finish his bloody dinner right here, right now, and then pull his knuckles together and deliver a ferocious – and brilliantly…

Oddball review – a sublime anti-authoritarian tale

M even though he’s only a 15-year-old boy, it feels like he could finish his bloody dinner right here, right now, and then pull his knuckles together and deliver a ferocious – and brilliantly violent – expletive-filled tirade about his travails in life and economics and God in retrospect (and other grisly nuggets) until the contents of his stove magically reappear in his plate.

Sure, this must all be part of his imagination – sometimes as a very dark nightmare – but it’s surely not true. “It’s all in my head,” he explains. This is no ordinary career for a teenage boy.

Oddball by Nicci French – see what we mean about working off drugs and being in a joyous young man’s form? – tells the true story of Michael Caruso, a seemingly average high school student in Plymouth, Massachusetts, who fell into a career in alternative education by stuffing all his notes into an old woman’s purse, and leaving them scattered all over Plymouth where people have wandered into them and then entered them. Many of the notebooks have become so densely filled with photos, dirty notes, and epigrams (“I suffer from an imbalance in brain waves” and “This experience is PTSD but in reverse”) that they’ve been returned to him for study, preserved, converted into form, and reprinted in eight volumes. In 2016, the journaling subgenre took the literary world by storm, with novels like Wonder by David Levithan and Mean Dreams by Christos Tsiolkas getting scooped up by publishers.

French’s previous novel, Shockaholic, investigated the disastrous effects of viral meningitis on teenagers – it deserves a place on bestseller lists, too. Again, this novel is a standalone in the honest-to-goodness highest sense, sitting lightly on readers but seductively probing into the dark corners of moral grey areas.

Michael is in high school when he starts writing the journals, at a time when he’s just a new inductee into the Mystery Club, is running up a gargantuan tab in his parents’ house loan, and is hiding beneath his parents’ and his little brother’s beds in their basement because he hasn’t been able to straighten up and fly right. This is where the thrills and chills are: more than three quarters of Oddball is told in the notes that he has written, note-for-note, and all translated to English by the shrewd yet compassionate Dr James Fiene, who tracks Michael down, takes care of him, encourages him, and then coaches him to read and learn: Michael learns to be likable, seemingly nonjudgmental, non-radical, compassionate, funny, brave.

It’s all very well to forgive Michael for his act of youthful stupidity, but when we see Michael later, as an adult, and hear the trouble he’s fallen into in a podcast called The Art of Smallness, watching him beat his enemies over the head with a kitchen cupboard only to be shackled in hospital and denied more care by the US government (which – at least to him – is like a bad school where all kids are made to do the same thing but not always to the same grade), we can’t help but ask: why is this man beating himself up?

After the American version of 10,000 BC was once made into a hit animated TV show, it was perceived as having underwritten itself with legal action from the original creator, Michael Ivins, who had claimed royalties that others had already earned. This film-going experience seemed different: the shamelessly commercial ending was very gently undercut by the fact that in real life, despite everything Michael had done and been asked to do, he and his family were all right.

• Oddball is published by Faber (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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