I’m probably not a very unique case when I say that The Book Thief alerted me to the existence of Markus Zusak, having never come across any of his books before in India. But from that very first page, I was hooked. There was an easy intensity to his writing that belied the deep and sombre content, and yet made it very easy to get sucked into the world of its narrative. There will be a separate post dedicated to my discussions about that, but this one deals with 2 books of his debut trilogy. I had picked up Fighting Ruben Wolfe after coming across it in a bookshop, excited to read another book from Zusak. A little research told me that this had been written and released in Australia well before The Book Thief made him famous. I haven’t been able to find the first one (The Underdog) out of the three yet, but have read Fighting Ruben Wolfe and Getting The Girl (or When Dogs Cry as it was originally called at the time of its Aussie release)
Zusak, M. (2010) Fighting Ruben Wolfe. London: Definitions.
It’s a small book (roughly 180 pages) and the kind that you can read in a single setting (I finished it in 2 but I was working on an assignment simultaneously). Just like in The Book Thief, Zusak’s language is simple, sparse and yet poetic in a way that compliments both the violent energy of the book as well as the thoughtful undertone that is constantly present and as effective. There is also enough laugh out loud humour. Zusak achieves this by making the narrator Cameron a bit of an outsider as compared to his stronger, more athletic brother Ruben (The same Ruben Wolfe from the title). Cam is sensitive, quiet and overshadowed as a result. However he is also insightful, intelligent, witty and ironic with a silent sort of determination. This makes him a wonderful narrator and (I suspect) a much better choice than if the writer had picked Ruben. He may be the main character, but Cam is far from on the periphery. The story is as much about Cam, the underdog hero we cheer for, as much as it is about Ruben’s grit and successes.
I say, ‘Don’t lose your heart, Rube’. And very clearly, without moving, my brother answers me. He says, ‘I’m not tryin’ to lose it, Cam. I’m tryin’ to find it.’
The Wolfe brothers know how to fight. They’ve been fighting all their lives. Now there’s something more at stake than just winning.
(Book blurb on the back cover)
It feels very real, the struggles and happenings in the Wolfe family, their highs and lows, each acutely felt by us because of the writer’s wonderful gift for storytelling. As is evident in the title, there is a focus on violence. But there is also a certain visceral beauty within the descriptions of the actual fights. The prose and dialogue is pulsing and throbbing with energy, the words with rhythm and the narrative with pace. It is poetry in motion and many passages beg to be read out and repeated.
Light is on us.
The crowd is dark.
They’re just voices now. No names, no blondes, no beers or anything else. Just voices drawn towards the light, and there’s no way to liken them to anything else. They sound like people gathered around a fight. That’s all. That’s what they are and they like what they are.
(Fighting Ruben Wolfe, pg. 83)
The very brutality that I hated in Fight Club and American Psycho has a certain sense of vibrancy and aching beauty in Fighting Ruben Wolfe simply because the writer doesn’t choose to make that the focal point, the narrative doesn’t revel in the violence. It offers glimmers of hope, of better things. It introspects and offers insights on the nature of fighting, of what it means to be a fighter (are you really fighting if you know you are going to win?), of the very purpose of fighting (Cam wonders whether he actually wants to grow out of his brother’s shadow and if that is holding him back from giving his all). The book explores identity, family, pride and relationships, about what it means to be brothers, to want to fight to get out of working class roots onto something better; themes that are at once universal and yet ones that start to become relevant only as we become teenagers and begin to find our place in the world. It is YA fiction but the complexity and depth of the content, and the ability of the writer to touch us and make us care about these characters elevates it above to a plane where older readers will also find it enjoyable.
‘On the porch, Mum cries. Dad holds up his hand in goodbye. Sarah holds the last remnants of a hug in her arms. A son and a brother is gone.’
(Excerpt from Fighting Ruben Wolfe)
Zusak, M. (2011) Getting the Girl. London: Definitions.
Getting the Girl continues the tale of the Wolfe household but is more of an out-and-out ‘coming of age’ story for Cameron. He remains the narrator, just as insightful and quiet as we remember him, but also with all the intensity of growing up, with the fear that he will never understand himself, that he will never be understood by the people he loves. Like Fighting Ruben Wolfe, this book is equally a slice of life, a peep into the life of our characters for a brief moment in time. But unlike its prequel, Getting the Girl has no definite plot to speak of. Instead the focus is on the journey Cam undergoes to get his first girlfriend (incidentally Ruben’s ex), a process where he ends up finding himself.
We’ve all been there and can relate to it, while teenagers undergoing something similar will find courage and solace that they will get there one day soon. The bits from Cam’s journal in his own writing make a nice stream of consciousness from the main narrative where we get to know his family and their relationships even better. The family have more of a part to play in the overall mosaic this time around and in a poignant, lyrical way, Zusak weaves a story that is as compelling as its predecessor.
‘There are so many moments to remember and sometimes I think that maybe we’re not really people at all. Maybe moments are what we are…. Sometimes I just survive. But sometimes I stand on the rooftop of my existence, arms stretched out, begging for more.’
(Excerpt from Getting the Girl, one of Cam’s journal entries)