An Affecting Young-Adult Debut About the Lives of Mexican-American Teens in El Paso
Juan imagines himself a basketball star. JD hopes to make films. Fabi tends bar.
Together, the three form a portrait of Mexican-American life in west Texas several steps removed from success. In fact, all are just one step from veering off course completely, as Matt Mendez illustrates in his sobering, heartfelt debut Barely Missing Everything.
Best friends Juan and JD are high-school seniors in El Paso. Juan plays point guard on his basketball team, “the best player on the worst team in 4A Region 1, District 1.” Still, he dreams of an athletic scholarship to college, especially after his coach says a recruiter will be there on Senior Day.
JD plays on the team too, although he’s really just there to hang with Juan. His true love is making movies, but he has plenty else to keep him occupied, particularly the box of condoms he found on Christmas Eve in his father’s truck. His mother nearly died after she gave birth to his little brother. She got her tubes tied. “So he knew the condoms were for Pops and his sidepiece. That Amá had no idea. And no way was he telling her.”
The plot starts to turn when Juan and JD aim to forget their troubles at a party in the fancier section of El Paso, where all the kids go to private school. Their friend Danny lives in a 3,000-square-foot house with “a living room and a family room.” But the police raid the party despite the fancy address. Juan and JD bolt through the backyard, catapulting themselves over fences to escape.
Juan lands hard on his ankle and rolls it. The police catch him. He spends the night in county jail. And coach benches him till Senior Day.
Missing also spends time on adult problems. When Juan’s mom, Fabi, she comes to pick him up, she certainly isn’t happy. Her son’s arrest is just another hurdle. She’s recently discovered she’s pregnant. She feels trapped like when she was pregnant with Juan as a teen-ager, just before Juan’s father went to jail for a robbery gone very wrong.
Bit by bit, Mendez unspools the stories of this trio. Fabi knows that her current boyfriend is all wrong too: “She realized the ongoing cost of saying yes to Ruben. That having that first cup of coffee meant one day moving into his house and having his babies; it meant slowly changing herself into whatever thing he imagined her to be that first day.” JD can’t keep himself from running his mouth at Coach, at gangbangers, at love interests. As Juan fails algebra, his chance at recruitment starts slipping away unless he can make sense of equations and irrational numbers.
Like life, Missing doesn’t grant everyone a happy ending. But just as Tommy Orange put a spotlight on Native Americans in his Pulitzer-nominated There There, Mendez shows us lives we don’t often get to see in young adult fiction. You may see yourself reflected, or you may learn about people who are viewed one way by abuelos and the police and quite another by their closest friends and family. Regardless, you care what happens to each of them, and that renders this novel equal parts heartbreaking and hopeful.
(Caitlyn Dlouhy Books/Simon & Schuster, March 5, 2019)