The Tragic Age is a brilliant debut coming-of-age novel about a misanthropic young man learning to love, trust, and truly be alive in an absurd world.
This is the story of Billy Kinsey, heir to a lottery fortune, part genius, part philosopher and social critic, full-time insomniac, and closeted rock drummer. Billy has decided that the best way to deal with an absurd world is to stay away from it. Do not volunteer. Do not join in. Billy will be the first to tell you it doesn't always work - not when your twin sister, Dorie, has died; not when your unhappy parents are at war with one another; not when frazzled soccer moms in two-ton SUVs are more dangerous than atom bombs; and not when your guidance counselor keeps asking why you haven't applied to college.
Billy's life changes when two people enter it. Twom Twomey is a charismatic renegade who believes that truly living means going a little outlaw. Twom and Billy become each other's benefactor and friend. At the same time, Billy is reintroduced to Gretchen Quinn, an old and adored friend of Dorie's. It is Gretchen who suggests to Billy that the world can be transformed by creative acts of the soul.
With Twom Billy visits the dark side. And with Gretchen Billy experiences possibilities.
He knows that one path is leading him toward disaster and the other toward happiness. The problem is Billy doesn't trust happiness. It's the age he's at - the tragic age.
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Strong Start, then Veers into Hollywood Ending
I know I’m not the intended audience for this book (40-something mother of two boys), but I decided to go ahead and write a review on the audiobook since no one else has yet. Billy is a cynical, depressed 17 year old kid living in a rich community in Southern California (sounds like La Jolla to me, but Mr. Metcalfe mentioned in his interview with The San Diego Union Tribune that he was thinking of Pacific Palisades) after his parents won the lottery. He's sort of friends with a nerdy, socially awkward boy named Ephraim, and soon befriends a troubled kid named Tomb (apparently his name is spelled “Twom” according to the reviewers on Amazon who read the book as opposed to listening to the audiobook like I did). The novel is written in the first person in Billy’s point of view, and he’s dealing with some serious issues that made me think I was listening to a serious literary YA novel: his sister Dorie died of cancer years ago; he has something called hemangioma, a huge red birthmark on his face that embarrasses him; his parent’s marriage isn’t a happy one; and he carries around the book Being and Time by Heidegger in his backpack. For a while I felt like I was listening to another version of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” until the girls start showing up in the story as basically teen sex fantasies: the girl who becomes Tomb's girlfriend is essentially a teenage boy's wet dream (the first thing she says when she shows up in the novel is “'Hey Billy, you want to go out with me Friday night? I might even suck your dick.’”) And Billy’s first date with Gretchen: “Gretchen’s hair and clothes are soaked…she’s wearing no bra, and I can see her nipples poking out through her thin, wet top.” When Billy and his girlfriend finally consummate their relationship, the sex veers close to soft-core porn for teen boys: “I have my hand under her dress. I can’t believe how soft and wet she is.” Except for Billy, all of the characters are two dimensional, especially the girls, but then when the end of the plot ramps up to an over-the-top, made-for-TV Hollywood movie ending, I realized the whole novel is escapist fantasy and so are the girls. My biggest complaint is the fact that Billy has unprotected sex (many, many times) with his girlfriend with no mention at all of using a condom, and somehow she doesn’t get pregnant. I don't think it would have been preachy or detracted from the story at all to have written into the plot mentioning that that Billy swiped some Trojans from a bathroom of one of the houses they broke into, or lifted a box from a 7-11, and added a line describing how Gretchen helped him put it on or something. Or at least he could have added a line where Gretchen mentions she’s on the pill to control menstrual cramps (anything--no birth control at all and no resulting pregnancy isn't realistic and defies basic physiology). I do give the author credit for the fact that Billy was a gentleman and waited until his girlfriend asked him first. I feel like the novel started off as one type of story (serious, literary) and morphed into a completely different genre (Hollywood action movie complete with beautiful girls and hot, awesome sex with these girls). Apparently this novel got many positive reviews from everyone from Kirkus Review to Booklist to Publishers Weekly. Maybe I’m being too hard on this book. I went ahead and gave it 4 stars because it is pretty well written. I get that teens have sex, and I get that teen boys spend a lot of time thinking about sex, but the sex in this book seems a little gratuitous given the gravity of the beginning of the book. Okay, so YA novels of today aren’t the novels of Beverly-Cleary yesteryear. If boys today can get on their iPhones or computers, type in “porn,” and watch free porn, then the sex and sexual imagery in this book is no big deal, right? Jeez, I’m feeling old.