Something you might not know about me: I have an affinity for basketball stories. I took several classes in college about African-American literature and culture and basketball often featured as a lens through which we analyze the former and a vehicle through which we navigate the latter. Few things punch into my “analyze this” mode quicker than a good b-ball story.
So I was intrigued when I picked up a hardcover of Boy21 at my local used book store. It’s the story of Finley, the only white kid on his small town’s basketball team. Finley’s family is part of the dwindling Irish population in this no-good, can’t-get-ahead town. Gangs – both black and Irish – infiltrate almost every storyline and some mysterious violence in Finley’s family’s past have convinced him to a near permanent silence. The only people Finley talks to, even on his limited scale, are his girlfriend from childhood, Erin (also a star basketball player), his dad, his legless Pop, and his coach.
Enter Boy21. That’s was Russ, a basketball phenom sought after by the NBA, has taken to calling himself since his parents’ brutal murders. Coach wants Finley to help Russ adjust to a new school, a new life on the East Coast, and, oh yeah, help him remember that he likes to play basketball and that he’s not crazy. No biggie, right?
The plot was workable, for the most part. I liked how the first two sections of the book were all about basketball and identity for two kids with incredibly different backgrounds. A white kid trying to stay out of trouble, both protected and hated by the gangs in the town, whose self only becomes clear when he’s training and playing, versus a privileged black kid whose world was turned upside down by random violence and who engages in a very with-and-against struggle with the game that made him who he was. I loved the way identity was wrapped up with their basketball struggles, although I wish Quick had addressed racial identity a little more. It seemed like such a waste to point out that both Boy21 and Finley were the odd-man out on their respective teams, but then never discuss it meaningfully after one sentence. Finley addresses his situation a little when he discusses his teammate’s dubbing him White Rabbit, and his ongoing struggles with the gang on the black side of town. But we never get similar discourse from Boy21, “Black Rabbit”, about his past experiences as the only black man on a predominantly white team, or any observations about how Finley is treated, even by his own teammates. It was a glaring absence for me, especially with all the work Quick put into setting the scene.
The last section of the book was a bit jarring, as well. Having carefully built a friendship between Boy21 and Finley, and then tested their bond with basketball as the conflict, Quick rips basketball away from Finley because of…his girlfriend? And we suddenly hear very little about how Boy21 is doing. I mean, it works in a way because we are learning about our protag now that his identifier – basketball player – is ripped away. But the sudden switch in focus from Boy21 to the girlfriend is dizzying. The fact that Quick occasionally throws in that basketball is healing Boy21 by telling us instead of showing us how or why (as he’s doing to the opposite effect with Finley) is maddening.
Still, even with these faults, Boy21 was a compulsive read. The surface-level exploration kept screaming “YA novel!” to me, and while I hate that distinction, I couldn’t ignore it. More fully explored, this could have been an incredible novel – without the necessary “YA” qualifier. It was a compulsive read downed in a single sitting and a book I’ll keep on my shelves, but not one I’ll necessarily make room for in a care package to my favorite readers. Grab it if you come across it, but unless you’re looking for a good book for a tween boy, don’t break down the book store’s doors to seek it out. 3 1/2 of 5 stars.