Book Review: This Is the Part Where You Laugh

This Is the Part Where You Laugh
By Peter Brown Hoffmeister
Alfred A Knopf; New York; 2016
336 pages
Ages 14 and older

Local author Peter Brown Hoffmeister’s new novel, This Is the Part Where You Laugh, is a sharp slice of life that left me feeling a bit like the main character, Travis, who says, towards the end of the book, “…there are too many thoughts in my head, like trying to hold a gallon of water in my bare hands. Someone keeps pouring and I keep trying to make a better cup out of my palms and knitted-together fingers.” For readers, the someone who keeps pouring is Hoffmeister; this novel is overflowing with big issues, beautiful imagery, painful truths, and–in spite of death, disease, addiction, and homelessness–oddly enough, optimism.

Set here in Eugene during the summer before Travis’ sophomore year of high school, when the skate park under the Washington-Jefferson Bridge was still under construction, the story is told by Travis in short chapters with plenty of dialogue and description. He starts with the intriguing and disconcerting act of releasing a couple of South American crocodiles into the lake he lives on with his grandparents in order to create some excitement to distract his grandmother (and perhaps even more, himself) from the fact that she is dying of cancer. He plans to spend the summer improving his basketball game along with his best friend, Malik, better known as Creature, and periodically searching for his homeless, heroin-addict mother in the hope of helping her out. Even though, as he says, “Sometimes when I think I see her it’s like I’ve swallowed a piece of glass and I wonder where it’s going to cut me.”

Other distractions include a new neighbor—an athletic, attractive girl who holds her own mysteries; occasional shoplifting; and installments of Creature’s fascinating writing project titled The Pervert’s Guide to Russian Princesses. Why Russian princesses? Creature explains, “I guess it’s like this: they didn’t have any power… I guess I like to put me there, too. With them. What if we had love affairs? What if we had powerful love affairs?”

As the summer wears on events unfold, little decisions lead to larger consequences, and in spite of times when Travis and Creature both spout wisdom beyond their years, they can’t seem to master trouble. There’s poetry in this novel, tangled in teenage foolishness and passion; and there’s tragedy in wasted lives and damage done all around. Eugene is very much a character in this book, too, with a focus on the dirtier side of our fair city: the homeless camps, the broken glass and used needles on the riverbank, the seedy west Eugene motels, and its racist past still present, too. But there’s redemption in the characters’ love and persistence. Even in the face of all the bad surrounding them like blackberry brambles, Travis recognizes “the only way through the thicket is to take the cutting.” This Is the Part Where You Laugh manages to be funny and heartbreaking and confusing and complex. Not unlike real life, after all. Read it.

 

                                                            Kori Kunz

                                                            Teacher Librarian at Sheldon High School

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