With all the recent talk about adults reading books written specifically for teenagers, maybe it’s time to shift the conversation to books about teenagers written for a predominantly adult audience. How badly has that literary vehicle broken down? Sure, there have been a few bright spots in the last few years, but the post-Holden Caulfield coming-of-age crop hasn’t yielded too much to write home about, possibly because as technology advances and we become more disconnected from each other, teenagers become more and more difficult for adults to write about or even understand than ever before.
Then there’s Adam by Ariel Schrag, the debut novel by the cartoonist and television writer who has taken the bildungsroman route before to great results and acclaim with her graphic novels, Definition and Awkward. The premise — one that can be adequately summed up as “teenage boy goes to New York to visit his sister for a summer, lies to a girl about being a trans, gets girl to fall in love with him even though she likes girls; hilarity ensues” — had me staring at the back cover for a few minutes, wondering what I was getting myself into. But a few pages in, I realized that not only is Adam a wonderful book, it is quite possibly the best entry in the coming-of-age category since Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen.
The most important aspect about Adam is that Schrag never treats the queer characters in the book like props set up for comic relief. She is sensitive to the different lifestyles, but still finds ways to make you laugh. Adam is just like any other suburban teenager: smoking weed out of an old Budweiser can, harboring strange notions of love and sex, awkward, horny, guided mostly by hormones, and dreaming of everybody from girls on porn sites to Hasidic girls in a way that would make even Alexander Portnoy blush. He goes to a house party where everybody is watching The L Word (funny, since Schrag wrote for the show for two seasons) and doesn’t totally get it, he stumbles around New York like a lost tourist, and just wants to be accepted. The only thing that you might not be able to relate to is the fact he tricks somebody into thinking he’s trans so she’ll fall in love with him.
It is a problematic plot line, when you think about it. Adam is a cisgender teen, and trying to justify his deceit as just a teen being a teen really doesn’t work. He means well, he thinks he’s in love, but what he does isn’t right, and we spend most of the book waiting for him to be discovered by Gillian, the redhead he thinks is the one. As we await his unmasking, it becomes apparent what a great storyteller Schrag is and how deft her comic touch is. Adam is one glorious buildup to something that you know can’t be a fairytale ending, and Schrag pulls it off in one funny, oddly sweet, and unique novel that nails a plot that just about anybody else would totally butcher.