The confluence of beauty and terror– that’s how my high school art history teacher described the sublime. A sublime painting or poem would spark fear or awe through natural beauty, grandeur, or infinity. Not long into Matthew Quick’s Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, I realized I was experiencing sublimity firsthand.
Leonard Peacock has something special planned for his birthday. Before he leaves for school, he stows his grandfather’s WWII P-38 pistol in his backpack along with four gifts. Leonard plans to give the gifts to the four most important people in his life, then shoot his former best friend, Asher, and commit suicide. Thoughtful and awful: sublime.
One present is for his chain-smoking, Humphrey Bogart-quoting neighbor Walt, a geriatric father figure who has shown Leonard every Bogie movie ever made. They communicate mostly in Bogart quotes, which Leonard says gives their exchanges “a weird sort of sense that is unpredictable and almost poetic.” Walt’s classic black-and-white movies have given Leonard a black-and-white moral code.
The second is for his Iranian classmate Baback, a violin prodigy. They struck a deal as freshmen: Leonard could listen to Baback practice in the auditorium during lunch as long as he didn’t say anything.
The third is for Herr Silverman, the observant Holocaust and German teacher. He makes a point of greeting and saying goodbye to each of his students. “There have been days,” Leonard says, “when Herr Silverman was the only person to look me in the eye.” Silverman is one of the few who recognizes that Leonard is in danger, and tells him, “Hold on.”
The last gift is for his secret love, a fundamentalist Christian pamphlet-passer and Bacall doppelganger named Lauren. Noticeably absent from the list are Leonard’s parents: his former rock star father who fled the country when charged with tax evasion, and his delusional fashion designer mother, whose affection is reserved for her clothes and her new French lover.
As the day progresses, we realize that Leonard urgently wants to be saved. He wants someone, anyone to recognize what he’s going through, to try to stop him or even just wish him a happy birthday. That smallest of acknowledgments could turn everything around. He yearns, “I want someone to figure it out, to piece together all the hints I’ve been dropping all day long, for years and years even, but no one ever figures it out and I’m beginning to see why people go mad and do awful things….”
Leonard is a haunting character: half vulnerable, abandoned boy, half dangerous yet wise old soul. He studies the world to know what it means to be an adult. When he skips school some days, it’s not to do drugs or get into trouble. Instead, he puts on a suit and takes the train into Philadelphia, watching commuters on a sort of research expedition to see if it’s “possible to be an adult and still be happy.” It doesn’t look good. His descriptions of adulthood are filled with death imagery.
On one hand, he’s sensitive and intelligent (he’s memorized most of "Hamlet"), misunderstood, scarred, and lonely. He wants so desperately to be loved, but no one really sees him other than Herr Silverman and cancer-stricken Walt. He’s been hurt or rejected by everyone else, so he’s going to kill himself on his birthday.
On the other hand, he’s frightening, sarcastic, bitter, and twisted. The first four chapters are written in a chilling, terse deadpan, punctuated by dark jokes and sick visions. Do not forget that he’s carrying a gun and planning to murder someone.
Quick uses two beautiful tactics. First, he creates the effect of slow motion in a book, which I didn’t think possible. When Leonard’s finger was on the trigger, I was glued to the page.
Second, he writes mental footnotes for Leonard wherein Leonard can expound on side topics, share background information, and drop breadcrumbs. Leonard’s voice shines through where it could have been withheld, and it reads the way people think – one thought sparking dozens more, like chain lightning. It’s a stream-of-consciousness format that’s far easier to digest than James Joyce or Virginia Woolf.
As Quick led me elegantly through the final half, the tension and emotional investment grew nigh unbearable. I trembled and wept, and my heart shattered many times over. I haven’t had a physical reaction this strong to a book since a certain third grade bout with "Where the Red Fern Grows". Beautiful, and terrifying – completely sublime.
The gravity in "Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock" sets it apart from its YA fellows. Quick taps the intensity of "The Hunger Games" and the emotional resonance of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" while forgoing dystopia, massive crowd scenes, or other hallmarks of successful YA franchises.
Leonard’s voice will linger with you long after you’ve finished. You’ll likely find yourself needing to give every teenager a hug, to tell them that they’re beautiful, loved, important, and special, that they have a sunlit future ahead of them – if they can just hold on.
(Reader discretion is advised, as this book contains sexual content, explicit language, and mature/political themes.)