The Field Guide to the North American Teenager
“[Main character] Norris’ evolution from cynical outsider to involved, caring insider is a journey well-worth following—especially as it’s accompanied with laugh out loud moments along with insightful revelations.”
Ben Philippe’s sparkling and witty dialogue along with prose that occasionally borders on lyrical (although in a completely cool, hip, manly way) is sure to delight readers of all ages.
The Field Guide to the North American Teenager is a debut novel that doesn’t read like a debut novel. Philippe’s prose is casually self-assured—a direct contrast to his pseudo-cynical, misfit, outsider main character, Norris Kaplan.
Norris, a black French-Canadian high school junior who, via hockey and his one fellow-outsider friend, had finally found a way to survive his mostly white Montreal school back home, suddenly finds himself exiled to the desert-like wilderness of Austin, Texas, after his mother accepts a teaching position there. He uses his powers of observation to catalogue his fellow teenagers—and to hide his vulnerability, much like researchers secret themselves behind camouflage blinds in the wild.
Norris’ own camouflage includes a razor-sharp wit that wounds with unintended consequences, self-professed cynicism that he clings to like a lifeline, and keen observation that blinds him to the truth of his fellow teens—and himself. Fueled by knowledge imparted by American teen movies—his only reference guide to his new, alien environment—he quickly decides that the key to surviving is not “to join a band of misfit rascals, overthrow the social hierarchy, upend the bully, or kiss the prom queen. No, what he needed to do was endure.”
This decision is reinforced once Norris meets a few of the school’s denizens who he quickly catalogues: Jocks, “wafting the scent of protein powder pancakes and shower gel;” Cheerleaders, who after an unfortunate first encounter escalated by his acerbic wit that has no off-switch, he labels as “laboratory-engineered little bags of evil;” and Loners, with “headphones that aren’t necessarily playing anything. Sad eyes. Stand out just enough to let you know to stay away.” Norris quickly decides that “Original Thought had died in the desert on its way to Texas, baked under the sun for a few miles, and been slaughtered for sustenance when provisions had dwindled.”
His aloof facade erodes as he’s forced into actual human contact with his “subjects.” First, a fellow outsider, a manic-pixie-dream girl with a sharp sense of humor that matches Norris’ own, who he attempts to court and date, only to find himself drawn into actual social encounters with his fellow students along with myriad teen angst and relationship drama. In time, despite his best efforts to remain an observer, Norris finds himself participating—not only in school but also in actual heartfelt friendships with all the ups, downs, pain, suffering, and dashed hopes revealing unexpected strength that true involvement with fellow humans entails.
Suddenly those stereotypical Jocks, Cheerleaders, Loners, etc. are no longer mere objects of derision and opportunities for Norris to feel superior even as he hides behind his camouflaged blind, but they have become real people who can be hurt—and who can help Norris not only survive but thrive in his new environment.
The Field Guide to the North American Teenager succeeds because each of us at some point in our lives have played the role of one of these stereotypes—and have felt the shackles those labels bring. Norris’ evolution from cynical outsider to involved, caring insider is a journey well-worth following—especially as it’s accompanied with laugh out loud moments along with insightful revelations.