Friday, February 12, 2021

How I Learned To Hate In Ohio: Teenagers Growing Up Quickly

How I Learned To Hate In Ohio, David Stuart MacLean's terrific debut novel, is one of the most authentic accounts I've ever read of growing up in a small town. Having grown up in a small town in rural Ohio, I know a bit about this. And real recognize real. 

Baruch — but he goes by Barry, because it's less pretentious and less likely to earn him an ass-whoopin' as he's beginning high school — is your average, ordinary, everyday, bookish 14-year-old. He's gawky and awkward, like many small town 14-year-old boys, and he has trouble talking to girls and spends his free time reading dead white guy books. His father, who named him after Baruch Spinoza, is a philosophy professor at the small college in town and his mother is an executive for Marriott, traveling the world to scout locations for new hotels. It's the mid-80s, they're comfortable, everything seems completely fine. 

But then a new kid comes to town. Gurbaksh Singh is the first Sikh kid anyone in this small town has ever met. But he's a charismatic kid — he goes by Gary for similar reasons Baruch goes by Barry — and that helps him avoid the worst of what the standard high school cruelty you'd expect for him. Barry and Gary soon strike up an unlikely friendship, as do Mr. Singh and Barry's father. Then Barry's mother comes home from a long work trip, and things get weird. Barry and Gary are forced to grow up pretty quickly and tangle with some adult issues. These, especially racism, are issues they're not yet properly equipped emotionally or maturity-wise to handle.

Even so, and while Barry and Gary's collision with adulthood only gets more intense as the novel goes on, this is often a very, very funny novel. Yes, small town life is patently absurd, and MacLean captures this with expert comedy chops. As you'd expect with any novel about high school, there are bullies and girls, bad lunches and worse teachers, and immature jokes and horrific nicknames. (Barry's nickname, which literally everyone calls him, is Yo-Yo F@g, after a seemingly innocuous incident with a yo-yo in grade school. And while we're here, if very politically incorrect terms are a trigger, you may want to skip this novel — there are kind of a lot.) 

I picked this up solely for its title, which I'd misread the first time as "How I Learned To Hate Ohio." :) Either way, though, it's still a fantastic read. It's short and powerful (and powerfully funny), and I really loved it.