In Ben Philippe’s debut young adult novel, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, a black, Haitian, French-Canadian hockey fan is transplanted to Texas. And he's not expecting his classmates to welcome him with open arms.
The author, who happens to be a black, Haitian, French-Canadian hockey fan who once lived in Texas, introduces Norris Kaplan, a teenager who’s sour, sweet, and – now that he’s in Austin instead of Montreal – sweaty. Norris describes himself as “a big headache,” and his friends call him “a walking bag of neurotic nonsense” and a “sweaty disaster boy." In short: He’s a hoot to read!
Norris’ sole goal is to make it back to Canada ASAP. Loath to make friends with the various kids whose habits he chronicles in a little notebook, he vacillates between jerk, loner, and hipster, and he blasts anything he considers stereotypical Texan (football, cheerleading, items painted University of Texas orange). When he does speak, his mouth goes places before his brain can catch up. He can alienate, insult, or shock people without quite realizing the effect of his words.
A classmate observes, “Have you tried stopping yourself two sentences short? I feel like every facet of your life would benefit from it.”
This proclivity, while hilarious on paper, nearly ruins his chances with the one girl in school who interests him: indie photographer Aarti Puri, queen of mixed messages. She’s as appealing and acidic as the Sour Patch Kids she munches. For one thing, she takes Norris to see a pretentious origami documentary; for another, she says garbage like “All that’s left of you is the beautiful tragedy of your solitude.”
Fortunately for Norris, a classmate (and coworker at a local barbecue joint) offers to help. Spunky cheerleader Maddie promises to help him in exchange for his working extra shifts at her family’s restaurant while she tries to make squad captain. Maddie is brisk, snappy, and Type A – a future CEO with a deep empathy streak who seems to devote her boundless energy to helping other people.
“The thing about Maddie was that for all the balls she always seemed to be juggling – the restaurant, the cheerleading squad, Norris himself, really – she seemed to take the back seat in her own life,” our perspiring hero concludes. “At first he’d assumed Maddie went to the top of the pyramid, but he’d been wrong. Now he saw it. Maddie had to be in the middle of the pyramid because she was the only one who could hold it all together.”
And once Norris meets oddball Liam, who convinces him to teach ice-skating lessons and even form a hockey team, Norris’ story takes an unexpected turn. Could it be that, against his better judgment (and that rickety scaffolding of self-righteous self-definition), Norris Kaplan actually fits in in Texas? Sacré bleu! Don’t worry, though – it’s Norris. He'll find some way to mess things up.
Ben Philippe writes with spike and spark, and he covers a ton of ground in “Field Guide.” We get commentary on being black in the United States, on mental health, on the benefits of both selflessness and self-advocacy, on broken families, on the immigrant experience in America, and more. Sometimes it’s a little too forced, but for the most part the topics are sprinkled in naturally.
Where the author runs into trouble is the deep bench of side characters about whom readers are clearly supposed to care. There’s an overly enthusiastic guidance counselor, a weird chemistry teacher, a few minor cheerleaders, and Maddie’s entire family tree. Most of these folks serve virtually no purpose in moving the story forward, and post-introductory mentions of them are infrequent enough that each casual reappearance is just confusing. More than once, I flipped back a hundred pages or so just to remember who so-and-so was. That’s a little too Tolkien for a one-and-done young adult novel.
There are also a few content warnings to note. There’s cursing and some underage drinking, which are fairly common in young adult novels. There’s also a story of attempted suicide by drug overdose that Philippe handles sensitively, but it might not suit all readers.
Overall, “Field Guide” is a bright, wise-cracking tale that riffs pleasantly on American high school stories. I look forward to Philippe’s next idea.