Last week I reviewed a book that was assigned reading in public school that I LOVED and ADORED. This week I do the opposite. Nothing But the Truth by Avi was the bane of my 8th-grade Language Arts curriculum. I could not STAND this book. To summarize, this kid refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance and hums the Star-Spangled Banner instead because, for the lack of a better term to describe how I feel about this character, he’s a little shit. He acts as if he’s getting in trouble for being Patriotic but all the while has ulterior motives. He’s an annoying little shit. The book probably isn’t a bad book, but the character was such an annoying asshole I couldn’t focus on the message of the book at all. Kudos to Avi for creating such a reprehensible piece of human waste for a character. Like I hate this character more than I hate Joffrey Baratheon.
Childhood Rating: 1 out of 5 American Joffreys
I got some details wrong, but one of those details was not about Philip Malloy’s douchery. This review is most definitely going to SPOIL the whole plot.
Nothing But the Truth is a “documentary novel” because memos, diary entries, letters, telegrams (what?), newspaper articles, and transcripts of discussions, conversations, speeches, and a radio show tell the story. It takes place in the early 90s in New Hampshire where 14-year-old Philip hopes to make the track team at school. His dad was talented enough to qualify for the Olympics but messed everything up by dropping out of college. I wasn’t aware graduating was a prerequisite for being in the Olympics… Anyway, the one thing standing in Philip’s way is his English teacher, Miss Narwin. At least, that’s how Philip sees it. The D he receives in her class blocks him from even trying out for track, as candidates must pass all their classes. Philip blames his poor grade on Miss Narwin’s lack of humor, assuring everyone she has it out for him. How DARE she give him the grade he earned for doing NO work? Teachers, amirite?
In reality, he’s lazy. He would rather make lame jokes and then pat himself on the back for his lame jokes than engage in the learning material at all. Apparently, he’s a nice, bright boy, even though all the evidence says otherwise. He’s that punk ass kid you went to school with who never did any work because it was “too hard” without even trying, never took responsibility for anything, and whined every time work was assigned. He’s the worst.
In spring, students’ homerooms switch for some BS reason and Philip is assigned to Miss Narwin’s homeroom. The daily morning announcements include the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, and school rules instruct students to remain respectfully silent. Philip wants to transfer out of Miss Narwin’s homeroom and English class and his grand plan to achieve this is to annoy the crap out of her by humming the national anthem. He does this two days in a row, winding up in the assistant principal’s office where he whines that everything is Miss Narwin’s fault because she doesn’t have a sense of humor. Philip is offered a chance to apologize but refuses, bolstered by his idiot father’s advice to stand up for himself (leaving out the caveat that if you’re lying, maybe don’t be a douche). He receives a two-day suspension.
During all this, Miss Narwin, a teaching veteran who is well-respected and liked, is feeling like she’s having trouble connecting to “today’s” kids, who don’t want to do any work and are always asking why they need to know whatever it is she’s teaching. She asks the principal for money to go to a summer workshop to learn how to connect to the modern 90s kid, but budget constraints and the superintendent’s wish to put money towards endeavors that will bring people out to school sporting events drain school funds. Classic public school problem. Sometimes she thinks she should retire, but she loves teaching too much. She even sees the potential hidden beneath Philip’s layers of ass-hattery, and objects to the school’s decision to suspend him.
Of course, Philip’s too distracted by self-pity to think about what a jerk he’s being, and his parents support him wholeheartedly. They’re morons. When they asked for his side of the story they wind up talking over him so much they miss half of what happened and suddenly the story is no longer that Philip was humming, he was SINGING. One moment the parents are like “we know we’re not super patriotic” and the next minute they’re going to their loudmouth neighbor, Ted, who’s running for the school board and telling him Philip only acted out of the INTENSE patriotism they instilled in him. There is no mention of that pesky “respectful silence” rule.
A newspaper reporter who happened to be interviewing Ted about the election writes up a story about the supposed injustice Philip is suffering. The story catapults from a local scandal to a national drama overnight. A right-wing talk radio station (ugh the WORST) picks it up. We all know how this goes: they immediately assume everything in the story is a fact, tear Miss Narwin to shreds, shut down the ONE caller who’s like “um maybe we don’t know the whole story considering there’s only ONE article about it?”, and implore listeners to write letters to Miss Narwin letting her know how they feel. Philip is overwhelmed by the letters and telegrams (telegrams? in the 90s?) of support while Miss Narwin is devastated by the hateful messages she receives. Will Philip finally fess up when he sees the damage he’s causing?
Being older and working in the education field myself, I can appreciate the moral of the story and the message it conveys even though it still annoyed the crap out of me. The book is a scathing commentary on the media, bureaucracy, and the increasingly entitled youth culture. NOTHING is Philip’s fault in his or his parents’ eyes. They believe his story, no questions asked. While it’s great to support your kids, it’s also important to remember kids can be douchey liars. Maybe dig a little deeper to get to the truth.
Their presumptions about what happened to their son inflate the story to increasingly pretentious heights. They’re the ones who invent the point that he was SINGING (humming) to show his PATRIOTISM (to annoy his teacher so he get out of her class). Every time Philip’s like “well that’s not really what happened”, his parents won’t hear it. Like Steven Avery’s mentally handicapped nephew in Making A Murderer, Philip hears the “singing” version of the story so many time HE starts to believe that’s what happened, even though he DOESN’T KNOW THE WORDS TO THE SONG. Once the national media gets a hold of it, the bastardized story is taken as gospel truth and a talk radio host uses the story to get his fans into a patriotic tizzy. Any attempt at logic is classified as unpatriotic and the teacher is immediately vilified. Sensationalism is more important than the truth. The school board is more concerned with getting the budget passed and saving their incompetent asses than supporting dedicated employees. This whole situation is frustrating because it happens every day across the world.
Despite the fact that the book brings to light serious issues, I still can’t give it more than two stars. The dialogue was dull, like how you used to write dialogue when you were seven, with lots of short, clipped sentences. Many phrases sounded out of place. I’m pretty sure phrases like “far-out” and “he’s still sore at me” and “you’re a crackerjack runner” sounded dated and cheesy in 1991. I mean I was only five at that point, but I doubt anyone spoke like that. Did anyone ever speak like that outside of a 1930s radio show? The other portions that weren’t straight dialogue (memos, articles, etc.) were dry and repetitive as well. The characters were deplorable, but engaging dialogue can save a book. Gone Girl has AWFUL characters but I still loved the book because they didn’t talk as if they had a 140-character limit. This book had the double whammy of horrible characters and lackluster dialogue.
The author’s intentions and the statement the book made were well meaning and thought provoking, but the execution left much to be desired. And right now, I desire to punch a pillow.
Adulthood Rating: 2 out of 5 Anti-Philip Petitions