Telling you to read this book is like that horrifying time I went to see Wolf of Wall Street with my devout Mormon mother and my 16-year-old son. Guess which two people left after 15 minutes? Only it's not like that, really, because I detested Wolf of Wall Street but I took four pages of envious, nerdy grad-school notes about things I loved in The Haters.
Still, though, a similar flesh-crawling awkwardness. A fear of being pegged a Puritan because I cannot say out loud to you, not even one time, what the central joke of the novel is. And yet it's mostly original and moving and smart. I, a person who cannot discuss bodily functions with anyone unless motivated by fear of my own imminent death, want to give it four, possibly five, stars. So be warned.
This is why: Andrews does what Salinger did 76 years ago, which is to use an achingly real, profanely sweet and sweetly profane voice to hammer away at a problem he fears is unsolvable, namely the finding of the thing that is so good it cannot be made ungood or taken away from you. The Holden Caulfield Conundrum is that success will inevitably lead to pride and self-satisfaction, which would turn you into a phony, and since detecting who is and isn’t a phony is the thing that makes you both miserable and authentic, you're constantly in danger of being loathsome to yourself. In Holden Caulfield’s world, only authentic and sincere impulses and people are worthwhile, and authenticity cannot be faked or bestowed by others.
The Wes Doolittle Conundrum is similar: loving something (in the case of The Haters, loving music by The Shins or Kool and the Gang) is risky because you might discover later that your judgment was flawed. Once you lose your passionate innocent love for that thing, you also lose your sense of confidence in your own judgment of what’s authentically, intrinsically good, which is the only thing you value in your self or anyone else. Hating on something, as experienced by Wes Doolittle, is a defensive reaction to the fear of disillusionment-- a profound existential dilemma that he calls “poisoning the well.” The unpoisonable well that he’s looking for throughout the book is the authentically, indestructibly good thing—a performance, a band, an experience—that is Good in the moment and still Good later on and (most importantly) still Good in the presence of someone you respect. His fear is that such a thing doesn’t exist, that a person is doomed to grow out of everything--to look back on things you loved in childhood and adolescence and see how flawed they were.
Holden and Wes are thus vulnerable in the same way: they both walk the earth in a judgmental frenzy plagued by self-doubt. It’s as though they gain self-respect primarily by acknowledging limitations, which is what makes them authentic, but what good does authenticity do if there really is no unpoisonable well, if there is only “I liked it then, but I was wrong,” or “I thought it was good, but it wasn’t” or, in Holden's case, "she was good and she died."
Besides being a very interesting take on this dilemma, The Haters is stylistically brilliant and full of endlessly witty hyperbole. It takes standard tropes of the young adult genre (the orphan and the road trip) and contemporary dilemmas (how do you get rid of the characters’ cell phones in a natural-seeming way so their parents can’t find them?) in impressively original ways. And even the tediously crude language—oh, the tediously crude language—is arguably a literary necessity (though I genuinely hope I’m wrong). The Holden/Wes narrator is always an outsider. Society poisons the well, so only a subversive can find an unpoisonable way of being, and he or she’s only going to be able to do it in the company of other subversives who reject adult rules about what you can and cannot say or do.
Here’s the problem, though. Catcher in the Rye was published for adults and later adopted as essential high school reading. The Haters is presented as a Young Adult novel. How Subversive-Raunch tolerant can Young Adult literature be? It’s a genre that’s more pleasure-based than angst-based, ultimately intended to be either edifying or blandly escapist, and although the gate-keepers are keen to seek out and celebrate novels that push boundaries of all kinds, this book may have crossed the raunch line while simultaneously crossing the angst line. Cerebral/gross is a hard sell. As some prominent reviewers have noted, it’s not funny the way Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (which I loved) was funny. And yet it’s far more cheerful than, say, A Visit From the Goon Squad. In many ways that’s a good thing to be offering young readers. If Wes doesn’t exactly find an unpoisonable well, he at least finds an unpoisonable way of being.
I would argue that this book, which I suspect will be vociferously banned, is an example of why censors are so bad at judging quality. The authentically true good thing cannot be determined by a list of right words and wrong words or by a list of things the characters do that you wish they wouldn’t do (or at least wouldn’t talk about in such detail). The existential crisis at the heart of this book is as real and probing as anything in Salinger, and it co-exists with a bunch of things I’d rather weren’t necessary. If you took them away, though, would Wes be a convincing Generation Z bass player? And whose fault is that, exactly?
Books by Tom and Laura McNeal