Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dear Bruce Springsteen by Kevin Major

I first read this book in middle school, I think, about eight years after its mid-80s release. Even by then, the concept of a teenager who was really, really into Bruce Springsteen seemed outdated. In the 90s "alternative" era, Springsteen was widely seen as passe. Fist-pumping anthems were  thought of as "superficial." Sometimes I really wonder what we were thinking in the 90s.

But, still, as an obsessive Metallica fan, I understood and sympthatized with Terry's Springsteen obsession. I already knew that I liked Bruce from hearing the Kids Incorporated version of "Thunder Road," and I tended to like what I heard of Bruce on the radio (which wasn't much). This book made me want to learn more about Springsteen, and for that I'll be forever grateful. I now have every album and count Bruce among the finest role models a working artist can have.

Dear Bruce Springsteen is a novel in the form of Terry Blanchard's fan letters to Bruce Springsteen, who, Terry knows, is probably not reading them, since he's busy packing stadiums on his Born in the USA tour, and probably getting sacks of mail. This was an era when teenagers (including his teenybopper sister) were, in fact, likely to be into Springsteen.

His first letter, barely a page long, is probably the longest thing Terry has ever written, and the three Springsteen bios he's read probably make up a significant portion of the total number of books he's ever finished (Bruce himself is said to have read only three books in school, and two of them were Dylan bios; he didn't start being a serious reader until he was an adult). Terry is not one of those kids in books who loves to hang around in libraries, or even the type who reads a lot of comics. He is the kind of guy who probably mostly reads car magazines, says "good" when he means "well," and wouldn't fit in at all in a gathering of male YA leads.

Even though he never really expects a reply (and doesn't get one), something about writing to Bruce makes him open up about his life and himself. Bruce becomes something of an imaginary friend; Terry is acutely aware that his family is pretty much the type Bruce is singing about in "The River" and "Hungry Heart," and that Bruce must have been a bit like him in school to write a song like "No Surrender," but wondering what Bruce would do in any given situation, and how Bruce would respond if he heard about what he was doing, puts a new perspective on things that Terry might not have thought of before.

Terry is a totally real, completely recognizable character that almost never turns up in books: a good-natured working class kid. Too often, narrators of YA books are either juvenile delinquents or geeks. Nothing wrong with those, of course, but not every working class kid is secretly a genius.  Sometimes it seems like every guy in a YA book who isn't a douchey love interest is a quiet brainiac (probably because most of us male YA writers are a bunch of dorks ourselves).  

Terry's neither of these - he lives with his mom, who works double shifts as a nurse to keep them off welfare, and his little sister; his dad took off a year or two before the events of the book. If I had to compare the family to any other, it would be the family in E.T. (which you should re-watch, if you haven't in a while - for a movie with an alien, it's about the most realistic movie of all time). 

So often, when you see a low-income kid from a broken home in a book, his struggles are the meat of the story, as he strives to stay off drugs, stay away from gangs, and get into college. Terry, we get the idea, has no plans to go to college. Just getting out of high school is going to be tough for him, really, and one of the minor conflicts in the book is his struggle to pass math. He's not a bad person or anything - just a normal kid with only a spark of ambition or confidence.

At no point is the book about overcoming adversity - it's just about Terry struggling with finding his own identity and worrying that he's either A: too much like his wannabe musician father, or B: just trying to copy everything Bruce does. Bruce is one of the better role models a person can have, really, but Terry wants to find his own voice as a songwriter and as a person (the one song he tries to write is a shameless Bruce copy, and he knows it). He starts to find his confidence and direction by organizing a charity lip-synch concert to benefit a local family who lost everything in a fire.

Terry's problems are pretty ordinary, really - tracking down his dad and making peace with him, getting through class, trying to meet a girl, scraping together money to buy a guitar, the the occasional arguments with his mom and sister, etc. What's most striking about it is that Terry's voice is so authentic and instantly recognizable. He reminded me of someone my 1980s babysitters might have dated, or who might have been roped into being a group leader at summer recreation. 

If Goodreads had been a thing in 1986, I can just imagine all the "all the references to pop culture will make this seem dated in five years" posts - you see that a lot. This attitude is so pervasive that I very much doubt you could get a version of this out today even if Bruce was replaced with, I don't know, Skrillex (the sheer fact that it's a male narrator, not a romance, and no one gets killed make it a tough sell for today).  And those posts would not be totally incorrect - you can certainly tell that the book takes place in the mid 1980s. But why shouldn't it? It DOES take place in the mid 1980s - all books do not have to take place in some sort of bland "timeless" era.  The story and the characters still hold up, even if the references make it clear that the book doesn't take place last week. That's the REAL reason people say to leave out pop culture stuff from YA books today - because some kids really do get turned off by any book that doesn't seem to take place right that second, and they want the kid in the book to be just like them.

But I just don't feel like we should pander to that sort of sensibility. Twenty-five years on, Dear Bruce Springsteen still makes Terry seem real and alive. Plenty of those characters calculated to seem "just like you and going through all these things the same week you are" never seemed real to begin with.

I've returned to this book many times over the years. I enjoyed it when I knew nothing at all about Springsteen and enjoyed it even more when I had all of the records. It's a story of how pop culture can help you find your way in the world and how it can shape you - a subject I think is far under-valued in today's books. 

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