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by M. M. Adjarian
Monday Jun 28, 2010

If Holden Caulfield, the angst-ridden teenage protagonist of J.D. Salinger's 1951 novel, Catcher in the Rye, had been gay and come of age in the post-punk youth culture of the 1980s, what would he have been like? Seamus O'Grady, of course!

Seamus is the fifteen-year-old narrator and main character of 85A, the fabulous new novel from Kyle Thomas Smith. In colorfully foul language, Seamus, unapologetic punk worshipper at the temple of Johnny Rotten, recounts the events of an extraordinary day that begins with a bus ride to St. Xavier, the Chicago high school he attends and utterly loathes.

For the first two-thirds of the novel, Seamus contemplates a life he would rather forget. His student career hangs by a thread; hardly anyone understands him; and his straight-laced Catholic parents just wish he could be like his yuppie older brother, Brody. Worse still, his bullying, unsympathetic father has threatened him with military school if he fails out of St. Xavier.

Things could be worse, though. At least he has Puddles, his beloved tabby cat. And Tressa, the brilliantly accomplished friend with hardcore tastes and high-art style. She sees the artist in Seamus that everyone ignores and encourages him to write, act and dream. And then there's Dr. Stryeroth, the therapist with whom Seamus explores his psyche--as well as his thwarted homosexuality.

In the last third of the novel, everything changes. When Seamus arrives at school half an hour late, the threat of expulsion becomes a reality. With nothing left to lose, he tells his classmates and teachers exactly what he thinks of them and their pitiful sham lives, then walks away, never to return.

Thanks to Tressa and his own forays into bohemian neighborhoods and underground clubs and caf├ęs, Seamus knows there's more--much more--that exists outside the racist, homophobic and hopelessly narrow-minded confines of his environment. Equal parts f-bomb droppping rebel and beautiful dreaming fool, he is determined to live life on his own terms, no matter what it takes--and to find a way to London, the city he envisions as the ultimate place of personal liberation.

While Smith's protagonist clearly owes much to his literary predecessor, he stands on his own as a unique representation of teenage "rage against the machine," in the same way that 85A, like Catcher in the Rye, evokes its own unique place in time. Like Holden, Seamus serves as an important reminder of the universal urge to self-define in a world hostile to anyone who dares to be different.

Publisher: Bascom Hill Publishing Group. Publication Date: June, 2010. Pages: 224. Price: $14.95. Format: Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-935-09826-3.

M. M. Adjarian is a Dallas-based freelance writer. She contributes to EDGE, the Dallas Voice, SheWired and Arts + Culture DFW and is a book reviewer for Kirkus.

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