Review: Winger by Andrew Smith

A few weeks ago, all my local writing friends started gushing over a book on Twitter. A book I’d never heard of, but they swore up and down and left and right was spectacular. Winger by Andrew Smith. I knew nothing about it except that they were hashtagging all their tweets #Iamsuchaloser and that was intriguing. So I threw out a request to the Twittersphere, “Who’s going to lend me a copy of WINGER?” Within minutes, I had a volunteer. And within days, I had a copy in my hands.

It took me a few days to start reading. Again, I literally knew nothing about this book. Except that somehow, being a loser came into play, and somehow, that was…good?

I wasn’t so sure how I felt about the cover. I mean, there’s a guy with a bloody nose on the cover. Gross.

But after a few days, I picked it up and cracked it open. And then. Then.

Oh. My. Word.

The best way I can think to describe it is Dead Poets Society, but funny. But really that’s not it at all, because this book doesn’t focus around a student-teacher relationship, and instead of poetry there is rugby, and also there are girls. And yet that is the closest comparison I can come up with to convey the spirit of Winger…without actually making a good comparison.

*sigh* I suppose I should just get to it, eh?

The Plot (From Goodreads): 

Ryan Dean West is a fourteen-year-old junior at a boarding school for rich kids. He’s living in Opportunity Hall, the dorm for troublemakers, and rooming with the biggest bully on the rugby team. And he’s madly in love with his best friend Annie, who thinks of him as a little boy.

With the help of his sense of humor, rugby buddies, and his penchant for doodling comics, Ryan Dean manages to survive life’s complications and even find some happiness along the way. But when the unthinkable happens, he has to figure out how to hold on to what’s important, even when it feels like everything has fallen apart.

Filled with hand-drawn info-graphics and illustrations and told in a pitch-perfect voice, this realistic depiction of a teen’s experience strikes an exceptional balance of hilarious and heartbreaking.

My Thoughts:

Disclaimer: This review will be slightly spoilery, but only inasmuch as the back cover copy is spoilery. I won’t spoil anything I did not deduce from reading the back cover of the book.

It’s been a long, long time since I read a book that made me laugh out loud more than once or twice. It’s been even longer since I read a book that made me laugh so hard, I had to stop reading and put down the book in order to compose myself enough to breathe. But with WINGER, I was tears-streaming, snot-flowing, short-of-breath chortling every few pages. Ryan Dean West’s self-deprecating (as evidenced by his “I am such a loser” mantra), utterly irreverent and so amazingly fourteen-year-old-boy inner monologue was one of the most refreshing, honest, and hilarious narrations I’ve ever read.

WINGER is light on plot, heavy on character. Ryan Dean (two words, one name. His middle name is revealed late in the game, and a source of his perpetual shame.) stumbles from one encounter to the next, from a midnight poker game featuring ill-advised drinking, to stolen kisses with a girl who is entirely off-limits, to unexpected friendship and awkward first love. He punctuates his narrative with hand-drawn cartoons and graphs to illustrate life as he knows it, which give even the darker moments a glimmer of light.

When the book eventually does take a turn in tone, as hinted at in the back-cover copy, it is, as promised, heartbreaking. I read the whole book waiting for the heartbreaking part, and was honestly a little concerned that it wouldn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the book. I should have had more faith, given Smith’s stellar execution of his story.

Much like in life, tragedy is often hard to anticipate. Ryan Dean drifts along assuming his life is most often a farce, occasionally a romantic comedy, intermittently a coming-of-age-drama. Then suddenly, it is none of those things, and he reacts in an utterly real and — yes, heartbreaking — fashion. There is a tone shift, but it works, and it heightens the feeling that we are experiencing a very real year in the very real life of a very real teen. It is unpredictable but authentic, raw yet beautiful. 

WINGER isn’t going to be for everyone. Ryan Dean is frequently foulmouthed (but only in his head) and crude, he objectifies every female he sees, and makes some truly terrible choices, some of which have far-reaching consequences. But if you can handle the sometimes-brutal honesty of Ryan Dean West, and if you enjoy laughing until coffee squirts out your nose over things that are likely inappropriate, and if you like stories that are hard to put into a box because life is hard to put into a box, then I cannot recommend this book enough. Hands down, one of the best books I’ve read this year. Go forth, losers, and read.