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It’s Not All Gossip and Fangs

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors

By Francisco X. Stork
Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, 2010

Last Night I Sang to the Monster

By Benjamin Alire Saenz
Cinco Punto Press, 2009

Last year found Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World on virtually every “Best of” and “Notable” list for young adult fiction. The story of a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome who is forced to work for a summer in a “real world” job at his father’s law firm resonated with critics and readers for its sensitive and realistic narration, as well as its broader themes of morality and family drama. In his follow-up to this critically lauded book, Stork has once again delivered a winning, character-driven novel that delves deeply into big questions without forgetting its intended young adult audience.

The unlikely journey of seventeen year olds Pancho Sanchez and Daniel “D.Q.” Quentin begins with Pancho’s arrival at St. Anthony’s orphanage in Las Cruces, New Mexico. To describe his circumstances as “hard luck” is an understatement: his mother dies when he is five, and the recent deaths of his father and sister within months of each other have left him alone and without a home. It’s a situation that even Pancho acknowledges is “so unbelievable, it was embarrassing. It was like he made the whole thing up just so people would feel sorry for him.” Uninterested in pity, Pancho’s mission is to find the man he believes is responsible for his sister Rosa’s death, a case officially closed by the police. Her body is found alone in a hotel room, circumstances that haunt Pancho into action.

He finds an unlikely, and at first unwanted, ally in D.Q., whose cancer-ravaged body does nothing to limit his sharp, philosophical mind. D.Q. is writing what he calls a Death Warrior manifesto, a list of rules on living life to the fullest. Unlike Pancho, D.Q. was brought to the orphanage by his bipolar mother. Now remarried and feeling remorse at her abandonment of her son, she wants D.Q. to return to Albuquerque for treatment in a clinical trial. After learning that the man he believes is responsible for Rosa’s death lives in Albuquerque, Pancho agrees to accompany D.Q. home to be his aide.

D.Q’s constant stream of life-to-the-fullest affirmations and engagement with the world around him stand in stark contrast to Pancho’s barely contained anger. Stork’s rendering of Pancho is masterful, and some of the best moments of the book occur when Pancho can no longer bottle up his emotions. After setting up a punching bag at the orphanage, he challenges another boy to fight:

He had planned to go like that through the whole match – receiving whatever Coop sent his way until he got tired, and then Pancho would bop him a few times – but something happened. Maybe it was Coop’s arrogant smile, or maybe it was his blue eyes and the golden skin glistening with sweat, or maybe it was just impossible to contain the rage that fueled him. Gracefully, effortlessly, Pancho dodged a wild right hook from Coop and buried his left hand in Coop’s abdomen. He sent the punch the way his father taught him, as if he planned for the arm to go through his opponent’s body.

With D.Q., Stork walks a fine line between a heartfelt character using the little energy he has left to enjoy life and a preachy know-it-all who wants to impose the rules of his strident manifesto on a reluctant Pancho. Even at his most exasperating, Stork infuses D.Q.’s New Age proclamations with a sense of urgency:

“The death of the spirit can come when we grasp life more than we should or it can come when we fail to appreciate life, when we are not grateful for it, when we don’t even notice we’re alive.”

Pancho exhaled loudly. It was pointless to even try to understand.

D.Q. continued quickly, “Like right now. Part of me just wants to give up. The feeling of wanting to give up, of thinking that life as I’m living it now is not worth living, that’s a kind of death. That’s the kind of death the Death Warrior fights against.”

The bond that forms between Pancho and D.Q. evolves slowly, with no singular, forced moment that makes them better understand each other. While the friendship begins as one-sided, ultimately Pancho cares deeply for D.Q.’s well-being, and even helps him escape from his mother’s home when he wants to leave the clinical trial and return to the orphanage. He has also taken D.Q.’s advice to heart. When given the opportunity to exact revenge for Rosa’s death, he walks away, opting to “appreciate life.” While the resolution of the novel is a bit rushed (Pancho’s encounter with Rosa’s boyfriend and D.Q.’s leaving home unfold in quick succession), the journey that the characters embark on is engrossing and the relationship between them is realistically portrayed.

With similar themes of loss and redemption, Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Last Night I Sang to the Monster tells the story of Zach, a high school senior living at an addiction treatment facility. Zach is fighting the push-pull of wanting to remember the horrible events that brought him to the facility while also desperately trying to submerge the memories. The book is written in the first person; we’re as much in the dark as Zach is, and the slow unraveling of his tragic family life makes for a heart-wrenching read.

It’s not just the mystery of Zach’s past that drives the novel, however. Saenz writes with a note-perfect clarity throughout, and while Zach’s head is an incredibly disturbing place to be, it’s a point of view that doesn’t wear out it’s welcome:

I’m beating the crap out of myself.
I’m living in a space between day and night.
I want to move. I want to stay still.
I want to sleep. And I want to be awake.
I want to be loved. And I want to be left alone.
I know that I’m better because I can name things now. I can place myself on the map of the world. I can. I can talk about myself to myself. I can be honest about a lot of things. But I don’t want to think about my mom or my dad or my brother.

As the pieces of Zach’s troubled past resurface, we’re given glimpses of his highly dysfunctional family: his unstable mother, his alcoholic father, and his violent older brother, Santiago. Even while relaying the terrible events of his childhood, Zach still sees the good in them. Being pushed to dredge up the past by his therapist Adam, Zach is forced to confront the impact that his family had on his life:

We had a decent house. And my dad liked having a nice lawn. I had it in my head that the nice lawn was my father’s way of telling the world that a real family lived there. A man, even a man who drinks too much, has to have some pride. Pride. Maybe God wrote that word on my dad’s heart.

But the thing was that he spent more time with the grass than he did with me. That messed me up when I thought about it. That’s the thing about remembering. If remembering messed me up, then why do it?

While facing his family trauma and his own alcohol and drug addiction, Zach forms a close bond with his roommate Rafael, a 53 year old man who takes Zach under his wing. Rafael is an obvious father figure for Zach, but as presented by Saenz the friendship is not a cloying distraction. Through several scenes of group therapy, we see that Rafael is wrestling with his own demons: sexual abuse by an uncle and his responsibility for the death of his son in a car accident. While Rafael encourages Zach to remember his past, we see his own pain as well, which levels the moralistic playing field. In Rafael, Zach sees a model for coping with the terrible memories that slowly bubble to the surface. In his sessions with Adam, however, Zach has difficulty admitting that he loves Rafael like a father, angry at the implication that he doesn’t have a father already. Zach’s need for a father figure becomes more apparent with the glaring absence of his family from the facility. There are no visits or phone calls, for reasons that become heartbreakingly clear as Zach finally remembers the events before he arrived at the facility.

Last Night I Sang to the Monster, for all its darkness, is, in the end, a story of hope and finding the power to forgive. Benjamin Alire Saenz triumphs over the serious subject matter to deliver a novel that is not depressing, but life-affirming. In the character of Zach he has created a relatable teenager who is equal parts stubborn and vulnerable. Dealing with similarly somber questions of mortality and faith, Francisco X. Stork’s The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is able to infuse his story with enough teenage boy banter to keep the novel from veering into exceedingly maudlin territory. Both authors are to be commended for crafting books that aren’t afraid to tackle serious subjects in a way that can captivate a teen audience.

Kristin Brower Walker received her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College in Boston. She currently lives in Cooperstown, NY where she still can’t escape Red Sox fans.