Young adult novels have a reputation for being less than profound; focusing on the concerns specific to teenagers and usually not done in a particularly creative way. Oh sure, every once in a while a young adult novel breaks through to the mainstream, with probably Harry Potter
being the single most successful one in recent years. It’s kind of hard to remember now, but at the time the first few Harry Potter books were released, they were indeed found only in the young adult section. Now, of course, they practically have their own section.
A much better example of the young adult novel that should have become popular is Janet Tashjian’s The Gospel According to Larry. Tashjian’s novel is revolutionary in a way that Harry Potter can never hope to be, despite all the book banning and book burning it has generated. One of the primary purposes of young adult novels is that they are intended to teach values as well as tell a good story. The Gospel According to Larry is revolutionary young adult novel precisely because it questions so many of the values that other novels-mainstream adult novels as well as young adult novels-hold so dear.
The titular protagonist, Larry, is a character who should be deeply admired. For every young kid who dresses up as Harry Potter or Hermione, in an ideal world there would be ten kids who attempt to follow the lead Larry has set for them. The Gospel According to Larry fits in well with the growing anticonsumer movement that is taking the world by storm, whether literally with the rioting at WTO meetings or more subtly by kids refusing to wear brand name clothing. Tashjian has Larry become an icon of anticonsumerism, creating a web site which soon becomes a worldwide sensation. (There is an actual web site where you can learn more about Larry and his cause.) Larry’s web site soon becomes a bond fide sensation to the point where it is noticed by Bono of the band U2, who is so taken with the unknown anticonsumer leader that he organizes a free benefit concert along the lines of Live Aid.
What exactly is it that makes Larry’s web site such a cultural touchstone? To begin with, there’s Larry’s so-called sermons. Larry speaks out against the commodification of everything, as well as points out the cheap and cynical selling of fashion as a personality statement. Larry puts his money where his mouth it; he allows himself to own just seventy-five possessions. Before he’ll buy anything new, he has to decide which of his current possessions he’ll be willing to discard before adding something new to list of 75. Larry’s utter anonymity is part of what makes Larry’s web site and message so successful, but of course it also institutes a challenge to find out just how this guy really is. This challenge is made somewhat easier by Larry himself as he uploads pictures of his 75 possession one at a time.
Unfortunately for Larry, tracking down his true identity becomes an obsession for some people. In addition, he has his critics who question the ethical validity of a cultural critic who demands utter anonymity. Why doesn’t Larry reveal himself? Just who is this leader of a global anticonsumer movement? Who is this person who has the gall to call into question all that the free market system has given to the world?
Larry still has his followers, however. Two of them are the teenagers, Beth and Josh, who remain firmly committed to the view that Larry should be regarded as heroic. They see Larry as a beacon of truth, a hero of chivalric proportions and their interest in finding out who Larry really is completely benevolent. Though best friends, Josh’s feelings for Beth are much more passionate. Josh is, in fact, very much in love with Beth and he would do anything to win her.
Except for letting Beth know that he, Josh, is actually Larry.
The Gospel According to Larry is, for much of the novel, deeply concerned with the Josh’s struggles to maintain his secret identity. He’s like a superhero except that he really is heroic and not just accidentally. Larry’s popularity reaches its peak with the Bono-organized Larryfest, a free concert with food sold at cost. (Not bloody likelyÃ¢Â?Â¦). It is the high point of Larry/Josh’s existence. But ultimately it also is the end of his anonymity. One of those desperately trying to out him figures out that Josh is Larry.
Events soon spiral out of the control of Josh. Beth feels betrayed and Josh finds himself being manipulated by the media as if he were one of the very commodities he spoke out against. Sadly, Larry devolves into just another brand name. Josh must make a decision on the future of Larry as well as his own future.
That part of the story you will have to read yourself. And I cannot recommend The Gospel According to Larry highly enough. Please do not let the fact that it is considered a young adult novel scare you off. This is a deeper and more meaningful novel than just about any so-called “adult” novel that has been on the bestseller lists in the past decade. I promise you that you will be inspired by Larry’s story. And if you are an English teacher, please consider using this novel in class. Your students will be far more interested in the story of Josh and Larry than they will in Silas Marner or even Huck Finn. The Gospel According to Larry speaks to a generation of kids who have grown up thinking that they can express what’s inside them by wearing logos. The novel even comes with questions for classroom discussion, as well as an interview with Tashjian and a link to Larry’s official web site.