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chinese handcuffs

23 february 2012

Chinese Handcuffs is one of the best novels by Chris Crutcher, the current dean of sport-related Young Adult fiction writers. It's brisk, with a rousing story; it treats young men and young women almost equally; it has a message, but a relatively nuanced one; and it has characters you care about. None of these things is very easy to bring off, and Crutcher manages all four like the master he is.

Of course, you have to enjoy sport-related Young Adult fiction to share my assessment. You have to like your fiction splashy and energetic, your characters fervid and prone to landing in extreme situations. Young Adult protagonists live like there's no tomorrow; nothing is trivial to them. And given the murder, suicide, and accident rates in YA fiction, they are well-advised to live that way.

To like Crutcher's novels in particular, you have to like sports, or at least be able to accept that sports are important in kids' lives. If you can suspend your cultural priorities while reading to allow that basketball and triathlon may be pursuits as valuable as, say, reading, then you can appreciate Crutcher's fictional world – the world of many an American community, of course.

In Chinese Handcuffs, the narrative alternates between a third person able to enter the consciousness of various characters, and a first person narrator, Dillon Hemingway, who deliberately borrows a narrative device from Alice Walker's Color Purple: write letters to someone who probably isn't going to write back. The themes are teen suicide, teen pregnancy, molestation of teen girls by hideous stepfathers, and why highschool administrators can be such putzes (a theme treated in Chinese Handcuffs for laughs, a shade lighter than the similar theme in John Hughes's movies).

All this is done with brio, and what's more, with an admirably serious respect for the problems of young people. There are good and courageous adults in Crutcher's world, but they don't feel they automatically know best and must make all the decisions in life. That balance is as much as anything else the secret to Crutcher's success.

If there's a false note in Chinese Handcuffs, it's Dillon's romantic attraction in two different directions: to his athletic peer Jen and his de facto sister-in-law Stacy. He muses at great lengths in his letters to the void about his complicated love for them both, loves so magnetic in their opposite pull that they leave him in the center, unable to have a relationship with either young woman. Something doesn't convince in this picture of a teen boy steeping himself in complex platonic esteem for a pair of unattainable girls. But artificial as the feelings may seem to the reader, the situation allows Dillon to develop adult-like relationships with two women that he won't (or at least won't soon) be in sexual relationships with. And that's certainly a healthy approach to writing about friendship.

Crutcher, Chris. Chinese Handcuffs. 1989. New York: Greenwillow / HarperTempest [HarperCollins], 2004.