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"The Spectacular Now" creates something that lingers

The Spectacular Now - Tim Tharp

Like many, I found The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp cross my radar when "The Spectacular Now" movie began buzzing as a YA adaptation that gained critical acclaim. And, in a fit of impatience, I read the book and watched the movie in somewhat simultaneous order within the same day of each other.


As a disclaimer, let me say both are good. Both do have an adherence to the spirit of what the story is about but they are drastically different in how you consume them and, I feel, lead you to different philosophies in how it plays out. The book is Sutter Keely's mind, it is locked into his limitations and bolstered by his narrative, which plays consistently throughout the novel. The movie is Sutter Keely with a slight bias to his POV, but by the third act it clearly wants to drive a sledgehammer in that his views aren't reliable or accurate.


And this is why I would not recommend The Spectacular Now without reservation. Because Tharp walks a narrow and hard to navigate line in making a protagonist that is equal parts likeable and dislikeable. Sutter's narration is a strong and unique voice that has a way of making you sympathize with him because he is an overall well-intentioned kid. But he's also a self-centered alcoholic with no concept of consequences whose worldview warps the people who love him. Mostly it makes you frustrated with him, because Tharp gets you to care...even as he points the story to the inextricable ending that isn't the happy one the movie promises.


This novel lives and dies by how the reader reacts to Sutter Keely. I am in the firm belief that Tharp fully succeeds in creating a balance between Sutter's unreliable nature and the truth of the situation, but fully understand how other readers could get frustrated by his lackadaisical and oftentimes condescending views. He is oftentimes an unsympathetic self-centered dumbass. His relationship with Aimee is not a romantic beautiful thing, it's an awkward stumbling that is at times incredibly selfish and other times shows glimmers of true affection. I think the best way Tharp shows the dynamic is comparing it to Cassidy, Sutter's ex and probably the best character in the whole book in terms of being a complicated person who sometimes manages to portray her multiple dimensions through Sutter's boneheaded point of view. It's careful and there are layers to the story that suggest a particular attentiveness to the craft even as you're swept along in the always present thereness of Sutter's narration. Whether you're carried along through pure enjoyment or a growing sense of concern...


The biggest success of The Spectacular Now is that it is a book that needs to be digested to appreciate. Sure, we can read it and enjoy it as a coming of age but it is more than that, it hints to a dark past and a painfully uncertain future as bookends for this spectacular now. It is the flipside to "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" whose moment of affirmation here:



...is later met with the very sobering reality that life is more than those moments. That infinity and momentariness are conceptually at odds. And Sutter may be the real successor to Charlie in terms of a YA coming of age novel. Even if Sutter might not recognize himself as anything else beyond his moments of now and the moment of adulthood is quite achieved, Tharp gives the reader a true journey even if the ending isn't the one Hollywood provided.


But life is complicated anyway. And, besides Aimee gave a pretty good moral in her own words...