Although he often writes about sports, it’s a bit of a surprise to learn that Crutcher was not athletically gifted as a child. This was his freshman football experience:
At the beginning of my freshman year in high school I weighed 123 pounds, with all the muscle definition of a chalk outline. I couldn’t complete a push-up. I could run a hundred yards in approximately the amount of time it took me to get a haircut. And I was terrified. My brother, John, was a junior that year, at right around six feet and 230. He started at center on offense and middle linebacker on defense, and he had waited seventeen years to get me into an arena where he and his friends could pummel me without my bawling to my parents. And pummel me they did. I couldn’t have bawled to my parents anyway; to bawl you must breathe. (49-50)
But athletics that not really the core of any of his novels. Although he recounts many childhood and teenage adventures, in which he often falls prey to his brother’s practical jokes, the source of Crutcher’s stories, and his empathy for the characters in them, is far deeper. Drawing on his experiences as a family therapist and child protection specialist provides the real source of his writing. As he puts it:
I have searched for my heroes among the stall-t truths. I always find them among people learning the art of acceptance: not acceptance of defeat or acceptance of some inability to influence their own futures, but rather acceptance of life on the planet, acceptance of the grays rather than the black-and-whites, acceptance of the astonishing range of human emotion and human behavior. (235-6)
That’s a pretty tall order for any writer, but Crutcher is a fearless writer. That fearlessness stems from his belief than the purpose of young adult literature is to reflect the truth as the author sees it, rather than to set examples of good behavior. There are a lot of would-be censors out there, especially in the world of kid lit and YA lit, but Crutcher doesn’t flinch. And when you read the story of Allie, “a four-year-old, mixed race, neglected and abused girl” he encountered as a child and family therapist, you’ll understand where he gets his backbone from (226-8).
A lot of Crutcher’s novels include anger and its aftermath as a theme, and Crutcher readily admits that as a child he had a temper and that as an adult, he “was able to make a few bucks off that temper, as a writer and as a therapist” (10). As a practicing therapist, he understands where all that anger and rage comes from:
It was clear that most of the time the temper was a product of self-contempt, aimed outward. The self-contempt came from fear, most often fear of incompetence (which is why my mother should have let me storm around in search of competence when I was still too small to do much damage)—a very difficult condition for a lot of men to admit to. Because the state of fear is such a difficult thing to identify and embrace, it usually gets expressed in anger. The bigger the fear, the great the self-contempt, therefore the bigger the anger. (10-11)
Crutcher has been there, seen that, done that, and draws on that experience to create novels with a high degree of verisimilitude—his stories are believable in a way that those of say, Ben Mikaelsen, whose stories often come across as poorly written after school specials, are not. Crutcher is a good writer, but part of goes into the makeup of a good writer is the ability to care about your characters enough to let them get hurt. Death is a near-constant presence in many of his stories. As he explains:
A student asked me recently why somebody always dies in my books. I said, because somebody is always dying in my life. As they say, without death there is no story. Probably a better way to say that is, without loss there is no story, and death is simply the trump card of loss. (163)
That’s a tough lesson to learn as an ordinary person, and it’s an even tougher lesson to learn as a writer. The hardest part of a story—for me, at least—is always the end. The end of a story is, in some ways, the death of that story: that’s it, that’s all there is, there’s nothing left. But, he adds, “the best lessons about death come from the best lessons of life” (166). A good writer knows that he can’t tie up every loose end at the end of a story. Unless your story starts with the Big Bang, then it necessarily begins in media res, and unless it ends with the destruction of the universe, it also ends in media res. If you try to tie up every loose end, you become Sisyphus. There will always be loose ends. Life, Crutcher is telling us through the subtext of his works, is messy.
Genius that he is, Crutcher combines this lesson about life with a lesson about writing:
I know the answer to the question now, by the way: why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. It came from my inner editor, that part of me that forces the wordy writer in me to dump ninety percent of all modifiers: Ask both questions again, minus the adjectives.
“Why do things happen to people?”
Just because. (166-7)
A deep humanity underlies everything Crutcher writes. Even if you are not a fan, you will find much to think about in this book. If you work with young people, this book will also provide a lot of insight into their world. Read this book.
You can visit Mr. Crutcher at www.chriscrutcher.com.
Crutcher, Chris. King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advsied Autobiography. New York: Greenwillow-HarperCollins, 2003. Print.