A wise, bighearted, and hilarious look at one teenager’s life? Or a pretentious, self-conscious coming of age story?

Well, I have accomplished one thing in 2023. I finished a book I had previously marked as Never Finished. I picked up Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way by Bryan Charles because 1) I was trying to read something outside my normal style or approach 2) it was connected to Kalamazoo, Michigan, and as a born and raised Michigander I guess I hoped that would connect with me.

As publishers are wont to do, the blurb made big promises:

A wise, bighearted, and hilarious look at one teenager’s life by a remarkable new voice in contemporary fiction

and

Generous in spirit and laugh-out-loud funny, here is a novel that introduces a tremendous new talent and deftly captures the alternately amusing and harrowing process of holding on until you find your way.

That is what I was hoping for, but nope.  It was vulgar and full of angst.  I get that is what it means to be a teenager, but at my age I guess I just have a low threshold for these things. So when the digital book was due and people were waiting for the book I gave up.

But in an interesting twist, writing the post about books I didn’t finish motivated me to take another crack at it.  And one night when I couldn’t sleep I was able to read large chunks and find a rhythm so to speak.

I still didn’t love it, but I was able to finish it and appreciate aspects of it.

At its heart is a story if a teenager from a broken family who is struggling to find his place in the world and overcome the deep hurt he feels from his father having left the family. Despite a loving stepfather, he still feels hurt, angry, lonely and confused about his relationship with his father and with love in general.

There are aspects of this story that are well done and convey those emotions in creative and insightful ways.

But for large chunks the novel also feels like it is trying too hard. The lead character, Vim, is kinda of a smart ass, annoying jerk at times (not rare amongst teenagers, I know). But the language makes he out to be this sensitive poetic, artist type. Perhaps the author is trying to contrast the typical lazy, partying, angst ridden teenager as suffering from anxiety related to his family dynamic.  But there is nothing that really offers insight into why Vim is supposed to be a sensitive existential poet when he acts like a typical teenager.

The oft-told coming of age tale clashes with the attempts at poetic and unconventional structure. I think this is why the book is polarizing.  If you enjoy the attempts ant poetry/philosophy then it all comes together.  If those aspects sound off to you, then the book doesn’t really work.

I guess after pushing through and finishing it, I could see what the author was going for but it still felt forced and over-the-top. For me, it leaned more towards pretension than bigherted and wise.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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