There’s a fair chance that anyone who reads Tim Tharp’s “The Spectacular Now” knew a boy like the main character, Sutter Keely, in high school.
He was the boy whom everybody loved and adored. He was the life of the party and provided all the laughs. He was the one who barely skimmed by in his classes by charming the teacher. But all the while, he hid his demons under his smile.
Keely is a remarkable reminder of what it was like to survive high school and suffer through all of the troubles that come with it. In Keely’s case, he justifies his troubles by being the party boy with a heart of gold. To some people, this might seem unrealistic, but it’s not.
It’s easy to label someone as a bad guy, but it’s much more realistic and complicated to acknowledge that sometimes there are good people with good hearts who still do bad things. Keely is like that.
Yes, he’s an alcoholic, but he tries to be a good friend, and he genuinely cares about people. He just doesn’t believe he can be anything more than the party guy. Beneath the fun, party-loving facade, Keely’s real problem is that he doesn’t think he’s worthy of being loved and that everyone is going to leave him. It’s heart wrenching for readers once they realize that rather than tackle his anxiety head on, Keely drinks and keeps people at arm’s length.
I applaud Tharp for his realistic, unbiased portrayal of Keely. He illustrates Keely’s downhill slide in the most subtle, heartbreaking way. He keeps us firmly in Keely’s point of view but allows us glimpses of the altering perspectives around him — the way others begin to perceive his behavior. These voices, on the fringes of his awareness, balance out his willful blindness. The reader is made aware of his own downward trajectory by the changes in the people who surround him, or who used to surround him.
Reading the book, I was torn up inside because of the way Tharp manages to convey the seriousness of what’s going on in Keely’s life. Everything seems like it’s about to change when Keely meets Aimee Finicky. She’s just an innocent, nerdy girl who finds Keely the morning after a night of drinking, hungover and laying still on a stranger’s lawn. Keely quickly takes to Finicky, not because he is attracted to her, but because he sees her as a lost cause with no life outside of school and an indefinite lack of social skills.
Despite Keely’s good intentions toward Finicky, their relationship is truly toxic. The effect Keely has on her is initially beneficial; however, she ends up turning down the same road as he does as her grades begin to slip and she begins drinking as much he does. I felt anxious and helpless as I read through their almost-love story. I knew where it was going and wanted to pretend it could happen another way.
If I put aside my raw feelings about the ending of this book, I can be objective and realize that it’s brilliant. It’s the kind of writing that sinks its hooks in without me realizing that it’s happening. I got caught up in the rhythm of Keely’s voice and the warp of his perspective. So much so that even while I suspected all along this book and I were not going to ride off happily into the sunset, I still felt sucker punched at the end.
The most powerful thing about this book is its unapologetic honesty. Keely’s life is no fairy tale. Even if Keely’s twisted view of the world never helps him save anyone like he hopes, he still keeps to the belief that there’s nothing more beautiful than what is in the now.
“To hell with tomorrow,” he said. “To hell with all problems and barriers. Nothing matters but the spectacular now.”