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ThumbsuckerReview - Thumbsucker
A Novel
by Walter Kirn
Broadway Books, 1999
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Feb 13th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 7)

Consider this invitation from the blurb on the back. 'Meet Justin Cobb, "the King Kong of oral obsessives" (as his dentist dubs him) and the most appealingly bright and screwed-up fictional adolescent since Holden Caulfield donned his hunter's cap.' Oh dear, not another claim to be the latest Catcher in the Rye. It's unwise to come to a hyped novel with high expectations, and since nobody believes these blurbs anyway, and after reading it, smart readers will know to expect no more than a moderately clever novel focusing on teenage life, and that's pretty much what we get from Walter Kirn. The inside mini-bio says the author, a graduate of Princeton and Oxford Universities who writes for New York magazine, lives in Livingston, MT wherever that may be. Maybe it his experience with the Montana psyche that gives him the understanding to write this novel about middle America. Note though, that the book ends with Justin Cobb moving to New York city, and I won't be surprised to see a sequel, Thumbsucker II: Overbite in Greenwich Village.

I’m being facetious. It's the book itself that makes me so. The central premise is smug: Justin is a congenital thumbsucker, and when his dentist gives him hypnotherapy in order to rid the teenager of his childish habit, he develops attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. When Justin's father, Mike, turns the family to Mormonism, Justin is happy to join the new faith and becomes immersed in their youth activities. The religion is, according to the subtext, another form of oral fixation. Along the way, Mike takes Ritalin, becomes hooked on decongestant pills, becomes a star of his school debate team, and has a brief spell of being enthralled with sex. His family is a mess, and the mess seems to stem from his neurotic father's inability to relate to others. Justin's mother, brother, and grandparents have their own diversions, and the family meanders along in a standard dysfunctional pattern.

So on and so forth. Thumbsucker is hardly a gripping read, but it is easy to keep on turning the pages. Justin is a charming if glib guest to have visiting one's life for a few days, being amusingly detached and ironic. Nothing much matters to him, but he cares enough about his family to go along with their plans when it suits him. Even thumb sucking is something he just does without loving it. He is human of course, and so he gets upset when people make his life hard. But whatever craziness he encounters, life manages to go on.

The most developed relationship in the book is that between Justin and his father Mike, especially when Mike decides that they need to get closer as father and son, so they go on a fishing trip. The continued failure of the two of them to break down the barriers between them is the most affecting theme in the novel, like a version of Richard Ford's Independence Day as told from the son's perspective.

Insofar as Thumbsucker has a moral theme, it's something about coping with the lack of direction of teenage life. Time and again, Justin feels lost, lacking guidance he can trust, but doesn't worry much about his precarious condition. Nobody else has any better idea of how to live than he does, and they nevertheless randomly manage to succeed in moving from day to day. Their passionate beliefs of one week become irrelevancies the next week. Life is consistently disappointing, but there are enough distractions to stave off despair. That's entertainment.


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