Teenagers are like canaries in mine shafts: They're the first to react to the psychological toxins that threaten to dissolve the family circle and poison society at large. This extreme sensitivity, stoked by the hormonal turmoil of puberty, is the force that drives the best coming-of-age novels, the most famous of which is J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye." Holden Caulfield is clearly the model for Walter Kirn's narrator in "Thumbsucker." Armed with the shock value of his eye-grabbing title, Kirn depicts adolescent angst with edgy humor as his 14-year-old hero deadpans his way through one wildly aberrant scene after another.
Justin Cobb believes that he started sucking his thumb in the womb and is so enamored of his habit that he watches himself in the mirror to admire the circle his shoulder, arm, hand and head create. But he's about to lose this comfort now that his father, Mike, a macho, penny-pinching sporting-goods dealer, has noticed his pronounced overbite. Justin is sent to Dr. Lyman, a hippie in the age of Reagan, who hypnotizes his young patient and puts an end to a lifetime of thumb-sucking pleasure.
Bereft of such bliss, unpopular at school and indifferent to his younger brother, Justin becomes obsessed with his parents' problems. His father is in the process of a meltdown now that the true story of a knee injury, which allegedly kept him from playing pro football, is about to be exposed. It was less his knee than his lack of conviction.
Justin's mother, Audrey, a nurse who prefers the night shift, seeks refuge from life by soaking in the tub by candlelight. Unnerved by her beauty, Justin feels certain that if they were the same age, she would never even look his way, and he lives in fear of her leaving the family.
Without his thumb in his mouth, he is recruited by the speech squad, an experience he describes as "an experiment in concentrating on what came out of my mouth instead of what went into it." Pleased with the results, he fantasizes about becoming a television commentator. But his oral troubles are far from over. Another visit to Dr. Lyman, who has transformed himself "from pothead pacifist to citizen soldier" with the National Guard, yields a new diagnosis: Justin suffers from attention deficit disorder.
Unperturbed, Justin adds Ritalin to a pharmacopeia of thumb substitutes that includes cough syrup, decongestants, alcohol, cigarettes and pot, and sees his main task in life is trying to head off his father's plunge into depression. But complications ensue. He enrages a gay teacher, who calls him a monster. He pumps gas for a guy hellbent on bilking his insurance company. He gets the town drunk to supply him with booze. He goes fly-fishing with his father on an Indian reservation where Mike insists on chewing Red Man tobacco. And he instigates his family's conversion to Mormonism, a short-lived escape from their woes.
The action is fast and furious, and Kirn never pauses for a breath. His hyperactive protagonist is confronted at every turn by confused and conniving adults, and no one is who he seems to be. Mike's machismo is a put-on. Audrey is full of secret longings. Lyman is as lost as any teenager, and teachers, employers and church people are hypocritical and unreliable. As the young hero of a coming-of-age story, Justin should learn from the follies of his elders and aspire to a higher plane of existence. Instead, he relishes his cynicism, and his leech-like disaffection slowly draws all the emotion out of the story.
There are passages of hilarity and poignancy, and Kirn does succeed in capturing the feigned indifference of a 14-year-old, but Justin's odyssey is numbingly madcap and glib. Ensconced within the closed circle of the self, Justin is a Teflon character unchanged by beauty, dishonesty or love, and Kirn's picaresque tale leaves no mark on the mind.