‘The Field Guide To The North American Teenager’

A Canadian Hockey Kid, Trapped in Texas

Norris Kaplan hates Texas.

It’s too hot. He has to deal with central-casting jocks, bitchy cheerleaders and a whole slew of warm-weather dwellers who totally don’t appreciate his Canadiens hockey jersey. Most of all, it’s not Canada, where all his friends are.

Alas, he must endure, because his mother has secured an elusive tenure-track spot at the University of Texas. Like thousands of other kids these days, he moves to Austin. So off Norris goes to Texas high school, firmly atop his high horse. He records his observations, Harriet-the-Spy-like, in a little yellow notebook.

Author photo by Ashlie Busone.

“Two weeks in, Norris had discovered object permanence to be one of the many things the American teenager was still struggling with as, for the most part, he’d simply become furniture around the school,” debut author Ben Philippe writes. “Not trying had paid off, and the novelty of the New Black Canadian Kid had dissipated.”

That may be true for his classmates. But The Field Guide to the North American Teenager soars wholly on the strength of Norris, who’s funny even at his crankiest. A football-player classmate smells like “protein powder pancakes and shower gel.” Loners wear “headphones that aren’t necessarily playing anything.” Those same kids watch  “weird porn. Like, German weird…Stuff that gets your laptop blinking on a registry somewhere.”

Norris gets himself a job, a sort-of girlfriend, a wingwoman and a hockey buddy. He also struggles with a dad (his parents are divorced) who’s often too distracted by job demands and a new baby. Tidbits of casual racism rear up, from name-calling hockey opponents to classmates’ preconceptions.

“Enter this jerk,” Norris gestures to himself, as he narrates the previous few minutes to the intriguing Aarti Puri. Aarti’s just explained that the guy he told off was her ex.

“‘New kid, roaming the party with no one to talk to, and with an inborn ability to piss off people that could probably fight off Magneto … and also black.’

‘That doesn’t matter!’ Aarti said, offended. Now it was Norris’ turn to give her that look. One of Norris’ biggest pet peeves, growing up in Canada, was the people telling him that his race didn’t matter to them and giving themselves preemptive credit to do or say whatever they wanted. He didn’t know her that well, but Aarti was smart enough to know better. Especially being a brown girl herself.”

These issue-driven incidents prove less central to the plot than his efforts to impress Aarti with relationship advice from co-worker Madison. He also tries to parse why super-chill Liam wants to be his friend and hockey protégé. While only the most obtuse of readers will fail to predict that Norris and Madison are destined to rise above the friend zone, Philippe buttresses “Field Guide” with endless wit. It careens along, quip by quip, through Norris’ existence:

“‘His grooming is fine,’ Meredith snapped,” irritated that Norris has brought up her boyfriend’s more hirsute qualities.

“‘As a rich, verdant field where hobbits and other fairy-tale creatures can establish a colony, sure,’ Norris said. ‘But as the armpits of a dude with an infinite collection of tank tops? It needs some severe landscaping. Like, advanced deforestation.’”

Do most teens talk this way? No. But it’s so deliciously diverting to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride.

Balzer + Bray (January 8, 2019)

Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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