Book Review: Reality Boy by A. S. King
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.
I don’t know why, but I picked up this book expecting something a bit on the whimsical side. Maybe shades of The Truman Show, but grittier and without Jim Carrey.
But. Wow. I was wrong. No whimsy to be found in Reality Boy.
This is a hard and upsetting and disturbing book. Not to say that it’s not also powerful and compelling. But boy, did this one knock me for a loop.
For starters, the early chapters are just uncomfortable to read and left me feeling kind of squicked out.
The synopses are all a big vague, but the truth is this: Gerald had a horrific childhood, terrified by an older sister who took every opportunity to torment Gerald and his other sister, even to the point of attempted drownings and suffocations. And Gerald’s parents, instead of protecting him, were either absent or willfully ignored the facts staring them in the face. To deal with it, Gerald’s mother invited Network Nanny into their home, who set above trying to instill proper behavior in Gerald and his sisters via reward charts and 24-hour cameras. Little Gerald, five years old and simply not being heard, acts out in the only ways he can. He gets angry, he punches holes in the walls, and when he still gets no protection against his crazy sister, starts… umm… protesting in a way that earns him the indelible nickname of The Crapper.
Oh, it’s nasty.
What’s worse is that all of this is being filmed and broadcasted, and those scenes of Gerald acting out live on forever on YouTube.
So when the book opens and we first meet Gerald, he’s an angry, angry 17-year-old who has no friends, who’s still referred to by schoolmates as The Crapper, and who’s been relegated to the special ed classroom because of his violent streak. But when he meets Hannah, an equally messed up kid who works at the sports center concession stand with him, Gerald finally starts to envision a life in which he may actually get what he wants. A life in which death or jail are not the only options — and a life where he might actually find friendship and possibly even love.
This book is just painful to read. The amount of suffering Gerald endures is unimaginable, and to then have his humiliations made so public compounds all of his problems to the nth degree. I was just infuriated by Gerald’s parents, who shrugged their shoulders and allowed all of this happen, both during the filming of the TV show and in all the years since, during which the oldest sister continues to demonstrate a huge sadistic streak and still retains her parents’ support and affection.
Author A. S. King draws Gerald as a multi-layered young man. He’s much more than just his anger. Underneath his ready-to-snap facade is a boy who has been deeply wounded and who feels that he needs to wrap himself in an invisible layer of plastic and war paint just to make it through each day. And when life gets too intense, he retreats into the imaginary world inside his head, where the streets are paved with ice cream and marshmallows and he and his nice sister live without fear. The downside of having a girlfriend, Gerald finds out, is that she expects you to actually be present — and being with Hannah is what finally forces Gerald to face his present and start making the demands for himself that someone should have made for him long, long ago.
This is an intense and upsetting book. I’m a peaceful person, but I wanted to punch walls on Gerald’s behalf. The neglectful parenting here is just appalling. Gerald’s family is well-off and lives in a lovely home in a gated community — but that outward security does nothing for a small boy who is terrorized continuously whenever the adults’ backs are turned. I really hated reading parts of this book, seeing how the clueless parents failed to protect their son and then made it so much worse by allowing his most humiliating moments to be preserved forever in the media and Internet.
At the same time, over the course of the novel we see Gerald finally start to emerge from a hopeless, angry existence into a life where he just might have a future, and where happiness might actually be attainable. Watching Gerald discover the possibility of a different way of living is lovely and inspiring. This is a boy who deserves to finally have something good happen to him!
Along the way, the criticism of today’s reality TV culture is unavoidable, and as Gerald points out repeatedly, what you saw on TV isn’t what really happened. Here’s a boy who was forever scarred by, essentially, a bad edit. How many other people’s lives are recorded, edited, and twisted for the benefit of public consumption? How can people allow cameras to follow them 24/7 and then believe that it’s a good thing? How can living under a microscope, with all of one’s mistakes and embarrassing moments preserved forever, possibly be healthy for any child, much less the adults in their lives?
We don’t meet any other child “stars” of reality TV, so the message isn’t necessarily universalized as much as it might be, but the author makes clear just how much damage can be done for the sake of a moment or two in the spotlight. Adults have a choice; children don’t. I’m not a fan of reality TV in any case, but after reading Reality Boy, I don’t think I’ll be able to even think about children on TV without a shudder or two.
A. S. King’s previous works include Ask The Passengers (which I reviewed here) and several other highly acclaimed books for young adults. Her gift for getting inside the heads of troubled, complex teens is remarkable, and her stories flow and demand every bit of your attention. I’ll be looking forward to whatever she writes next.
Title: Reality Boy
Author: A. S. King
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Young Adult
Source: Review copy courtesy of Little, Brown via NetGalley