Title:Gentlemen

Author: Michael Northrop

Genre: Horror/Thriller YA

Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publication date: April 2009
Hardcover: 256 pages

Stand alone or series: Stand alone

Micheal, Tommy, Mixer, and Bones aren’t just from the wrong side of the tracks–they’re from the wrong side of everything. Except for Mr. Haberman, their remedial English teacher, no one at their high school takes them seriously. Haberman calls them “gentlemen,” but everyone else ignores them–or, in Bones’s case, is dead afraid of them. When one of their close-knit group goes missing, the clues all seem to point in one direction: to Mr. Haberman.

Gritty, fast-paced, and brutally real, this debut takes an unflinching look at what binds friends together–and what can tear them apart.

How did I get this book: Bought

Why did I read this book: Because of this review.

Review:

Trigger warning: the book has a rape scene and I discuss it and its implications here

Spoiler alert: this review contains spoilers

Gentlemen is a terrifying book. And the horror comes from and works on two levels: the actual story (a thriller) and the meta text. Gentlemen is a terrific book for all that and for the myriad of possible conversations that can grow from reading it.

Its main protagonist and narrator is a teenage boy called Micheal. He is: lazy, homophobic, sexist, self-centred, an outcast at school, who enjoys spending his free time with friends Tommy, Bones, and Mixer drinking, taking drugs, talking dirty;

He is also a guy: who is saddled with a mistakenly misspelled first name as though expectations for his life were low from the get go; whose face has been disfigured by his own father who hit him with a DYI tool when he was a toddler; whose mother sometimes forgets to buy food and who never asks how his day was because what would be the point of that; whose school has all but quit on him by placing him and his friends in remedial classes and labelling them “hard cases”.

Mike, is in other words, a complex, unlikeable yet sympathetic, multilayered character whose point of view is skewed by all of the above and by his almost extreme loyalty to his friends who have stuck to him when others didn’t.

And it is his friendship with Tommy, Bones, and Mixer that move the story forward and is the central storyline of the book. It starts when his friend Tommy disappears after losing it during class and overturning a desk in front of a teacher. At first the disappearance does not affect the characters – he might have been suspended after all plus it is not like Tommy hasn’t done a disappearing act before. But then their remedial English teacher, Mr. Haberman starts behaving oddly when reading and discussing Crime and Punishment in class. The kids, especially Mike, who already intensely dislike Mr. Haberman – partly because he keeps calling them “Gentlemen” as though making fun of them – begin to closely observe the teacher and suspicion and paranoia slowly creeps in and take hold of Mike’s mind and he is certain that the teacher is responsible for Tommy’s disappearance and it all culminates in a very graphic, violent scene in which Bones beats the teacher up in his own living room as Mixer and Mike simply stand by and watch.

Plot wise, the book is an excellent psychological thriller. It builds up the characters fear, anxiety preconceptions and all of that based on what could be constructed as circumstantial evidence at best or projected hate at worst. It develops in parallel to Mike’s reading of Crime and Punishment and his observations of that book and the mystery is extremely well- constructed because there is the uncertainty as to whether Mike and his friends are simply paranoid or are they correct in their assumptions?

But Gentlemen is much more than a thriller and it’s in the meta text and Mike’s narrative itself and in the different ways that the author subtly allows the reader to observe his life. For example, it is there when Mike takes breaks from talking about Tommy to muse about what he has (or hasn’t ) for dinner or the things he did last summer to hook up with girls. Above all is in the way that much more than Tommy, it is another one of Mike’s friends that is truly the central figure here: Bones.

Bones is the one that Mike keeps thinking about and talking about, about their relationship and old friendship which started years ago. About Bones’ increasing violent streak. The climax of the story might be the point where Bones beats the teacher up but its seeds have been sown well before that. In fact, the seeds of Mike’s dissociation from Bones, the seeds of their eventual separation as friends start in a very disturbing scene where Mike observes Bones with a girl in an abandoned house. At first, Mike thinks all is fine and he is all for the voyeuristic experience , until little by little details of the scene start to make sense: how the girl is barely moving or how her hands are holding her pants while Bones is trying to open them. Mike is pretty sure that what he is witnessing is rape: yet he is unable to actually name it; he is unable to even look away (and he even has a hard-on) at first; when he finally does look away, it is in the certainty that he saw something wrong but that he has no business dealing with – mostly because he barely knows the girl and has known Bones for a long time.

My preoccupation with this scene, which is a short scene that doesn’t have any direct consequence plot-wise is manyfold. To me, as I said, it pinpoints the beginning of the end of Bones and Mike’s friendship by also being the start of Mike’s conscience growth. Another point is that there are no repercussions for the rape in the story – it is never directly addressed by any of the characters and there are no consequences for Bones. I went back and forth with this as it is an extremely horrifying scene and yet it is believable that there would be no addressing of it – we are talking about characters in the fringes of society and the girl never came forward. We do know though, that the scene never leaves Mike’s mind even if he doesn’t think about it: he does observe that the girl is not at school the day after; and it is definitely part of a list of crimes that he attributes to Bones in the end.

More than that though, what worried me the most about the scene comes from reading other reviews of the book that mention it. And it astounds me that some of those reviews address it as a “sex scene” . First of all, let me get something off my chest: there is NO sex scene in this book. There is a rape scene. Rape does not equal sex. Period.

The fact that so many readers are unable to differentiate between the two is exactly the point I am trying to make. It reflects a huge failure from our society to effectively address this issue. And it worries and saddens me a lot. It is why within the confines of the book, such a thing is possible, and it is unfortunately realistic and why there are no repercussions, why Mike will choose friendship over action. It is why right now, in real life, a book like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is under threat of being banned because some crazy guy thinks it is “soft pornography”.

But this scene is only but one scene in the book that invites discussion. I spent many hours after reading it thinking about the different threads of the story and what do they mean.

For instance: how hard it is to tell the difference between someone who is truly broken (no doubt that Bones is a sociopath) and someone who is only lost (like Mike) and needs nurture and culture? How does the educational system fail so many boys and girls by lowering expectations? Which problems are cultural and therefore perfectly fixable if addressed?

Another important question that I also saw with reference to the book: is this a book for boys? Well, yes, it is. It is also a book for girls. It is book for everybody. I fail to see why there must be a difference. In fact, I believe that this distance, this separation between books for boys and books for girls is indicative of the same type of problem the story itself is an example of (going back to that one rape scene): that boys will be boys and girls will be girls; with division and separation comes insulation and that is never a good thing. Just yesterday I was reading this article in the Guardian by Cordelia Fine on the Gender Lie, it is a very timely article with regards to this review but also because of recent outcries all over the YA blogosphere for more books for boys (oh please, can’t boys identify with girls? WHY the hell NOT?).

But I am digressing now.

(But perhaps not too much.)

In any case, Gentlemen is a book about inaction and ignorance; about choosing who you are friends with, about failure and conscience.

At one point the English teacher says:

a crime extends past the moment it is committed. That a man’s conscience….

He is interrupted before he can continue and it is down to Mike to fill the gap. And he does so and when he realises just why the teacher truly addresses them as “gentlemen” is truly heartbreaking. In the end, there is a way out for Mike but how many boys can say the same?

Gentlemen is a terrifying book. It is SO realistic and believable and that makes it even more horrifying.

Notable Quotes/ Parts:

What Haberman said about crime being “a matter of opinion”: Sounded like something a killer would say.
What Haberman said about a murder in the classroom: Sounded like something a killer would say.
Haberman talking about “the victim’s friends” and sort of singling us out: Sounded like something a killer would say if he was also an ass.

So anyway, that’s what we were turning over in our heads, all filtered through standard-issue high school paranoia and our natural belief that everything was basically about us anyway.

Rating: 8 – Excellent

Reading Next: Double Cross by Carolyn Crane

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27 Responses to Book Review: Gentlemen by Michael Northrop

  1. This book sounds great. Have you read INEXCUSABLE?

    The “boy book” thing is baffling to me, especially since so many people crying out for “boy books” don’t seem to be familiar with the ones that are available. I adore TWO PARTIES, ONE TUX, AND A VERY SHORT FILM ABOUT THE GRAPES OF WRATH by Steven Goldman, and in the years it’s been out, I’ve only EVER seen two copies of it in all the bookstores I’ve been to (one in its hardcover, and one in a chicklitty rebranded paperback that’s clearly trying to draw in John Green’s female audience). Great story, but so few people have ever heard of it!

    Regarding the “rape scene”/”sex scene” thing, I think that’s a matter of semantics. I’m not sure what the distinction you’re making is, but I haven’t read the reviews that call it a “sex scene.” Sex happens in the scene — nonconsensual sex– it’s a sex scene. Doesn’t mean it’s supposed to be titillating like a sex scene in romance novel. Doesn’t have anything to do with the current SPEAK controversy, where the censor is saying that the rape is “porn” and meant to titillate. I would call something a “death scene” whether or not the character is murdered or is dying of natural causes. So I don’t think calling it a sex scene is necessarily wrong.

  2. I couldn’t read all of this review because I was concerned about the spoilers, but it sounds fantastic! I will be picking it up soon!
    Thanks!

  3. Thea says:

    Diana – Hmm. I see where you are coming from regarding the terminology of “sex scene.” Yes, in rape, sexual intercourse is performed. But in my opinion – and I think what Ana is saying – the phrase “sex scene” strongly implies consensual intercourse. So in this instance, referring to a rape scene as a “sex” scene takes on on an entirely different, misleading connotation.

    And I find the “death scene” comparison interesting, too. Because if I hear “murder scene” versus “death scene” I also come away with two very different interpretations of the scene in question, FWIW!

  4. First of all, GREAT review. Ana, seriously… this is one of the best reviews you’ve written (though you’ve written many good ones *g*).

    Secondly, I have to read this book!! I just need more tiiiime… ;)

    Third, I totally agree with you on the “sex scene/rape scene” distinction. Diana says that it’s a “matter of semantics,” but I think a rape survivor would see it as a lot more than that.

    Kaz

  5. Ana says:

    Guys, I am so sorry, something happened with our site and it ate loads of comments. I will add them all again. But they will probably be out of order now. I am really sorry!

  6. Very good review, excellent.

    Fine’s article was excellent, and I agree with her. There are more “Girl” YA books than “Boy” ones because that’s who they’re shown to. I tell my library kids not to be silly and miss out on a great book because they still think boys/girls are “icky”. Boy’s reading choices are censored for them – if it’s a “boy” book then they can have it, otherwise, there’s something wrong with them reading a “girl” book… Find out what interests the reader (regardless of gender) and find the books that fit them (regardless of main character).

    Sorry for the rambling comment.

  7. Amy says:

    Wow – truly incredible review. I didn’t mention that scene in my review, I really didn’t include anything in my review (hard to believe how little I used to write when now my reviews can’t seem to stay under 500 or 1000 words! hah).

    The rape scene definitely is problematic in the way that it is never addressed. Unfortunately, though, that is the way the world works. I guess for me it felt very believable… which is what made it even more brutal. And some people called it a sex scene? Really? I’m awful glad I missed those reviews!

    As for the difference between Mike and Bones, I hadn’t really considered that but another really great point. I think the book really highlights things that we don’t think about but that we really need to work to address, somehow, at some point…

  8. Jodie says:

    I had forgotten about that article at Invincible Summer until you posted it – actually I think I had rolled my eyes at it and hoped it would go away, why doesn’t that ever work? And now I have a post I’m considering putting up…

    The sanitizing bit is what gets me. When I see female characters discussing the amount of bleeding they do on their period or their sexual pleasure then maybe I’ll campaign for less sanitizing of male characters. Things like sex, crude behaviour, talking about physical effects of puberty etc, etc are often the not in YA (although I can think of lots of examples that buck this trend – hurray)but it’s noticed more when it comes to male characters because (surprise, surprise) that kind of behaviour is not expected of girls. So when a guy doesn’t discuss jacking off it’s unrealistic and he’s a sanitised character – when it’s a girl, does anybody notice?

    And where is there a Twilight for boys?! Honestly I ask myself all the time why there isn’t a Twilight equivalent for boys – we need a roundtable, cuz I have some strong opinions as a woman torn between Twi love and extreme criticism.

  9. Jodie says:

    Oh and I meant to say I am craving this book!

  10. Kenda says:

    I tend to agree with Ana on the issue of whether or not rape is a sex scene, or rather, sex, period. Sex is something that is usually identifiable as consensual when we see/hear it discussed most anywhere. When it goes into the territory of something ugly, then it becomes assault, rape and so on. To me, it wouldn’t be that sex happened. Rape happened, and it is an entirely different set of consequences and reactions, etc. than if a couple had engaged in consensual sex.

  11. so the failure isn’t really the book’s failure than it’s our society’s failure and the book is accurately depicting society?

    I’ve actually been alarmed by this Speak controversy to realize that people don’t know how big a part of pornography rape and violence are. If they do, they lack the accurate words to express it in their protest. Speak is not pornography, but rape often is, which is shown in this book (which I haven’t read!) when the kid is aroused by the rape.

    Regarding death and murder scene, I would think death scene would be as the person was dying and murder scene would be the aftermath…what the police investigate. Totally off topic but had to throw it in there.

  12. Ana says:

    so the failure isn’t really the book’s failure than it’s our society’s failure and the book is accurately depicting society?

    I think that in this particular case yes, this book, this story is accurately depicting an aspect of society, yes. Just to be clear, there is no “pass” here, it is very clear that the rape is a Bad Thing, that Bones is a psycho and that Mike is taking the cowardly way out.

  13. Gerd D. says:

    @Jodie: I thought “Let the right one in” was twilight for boys, purely judged on the movie.

    RE “Sex scene or not?”
    I’d say that rape fantasy falls under sex scene, rape falls under violence. But the problem with a lot of authors is that you can’t tell when they go from writing rape to rape fantasy.

  14. Danielle says:

    Funny, I was just having a conversation about this type of thing with my English teacher.

    I’m kind of in the opinion that everytime a kid drops out of school, someone in that school is to blame. My own school has a high number of drop outs a year, yet all our teachers constantly insist that we’re just being “lazy and counter-productive”, which seems to be an assumption they made about us before we even walked into their classroom. I think it’s bullshit that so many people’s lives are in the hands of one or two teachers who may hold their own personal prejudices against the student in question. Especially in NJ where all the younger teachers have been laid off in favor of the older ones who have been there before people walked on the moon and think more then two ear piercings qualifies a kid for juvie (ahem.)

    Anyway, I’m rambling.

    But yes, I totally agree with you.

    As for the rape scene…I don’t know. I feel like as long as these reviews you mention acknowledge at some point that it was NOT consensual then you can’t really say they’re ignorant in the subject.

    Great review, Ana :)

  15. Bella F. says:

    didnt read the review because of the spoilers (which I always avoid) but the cover and title alone have gotten me to want to read this book. I dont normally read horror but it just has me to curious too pass up.

  16. alana says:

    Karen said exactly what I wanted to say about the idea that it comes down to semantics. Journalists do this too so I think it represents a much bigger problem at hand and the way rape culture permeates our lives. It’s pretty infuriating.

    About Hannah’s post, I completely disagree with her whole argument. I agree that tired old stereotypes meed to be laid to rest (for boys and girls), but I think it’s a bit silly to criticize the amount of male protagonists in books without mentioning the genres where male protagonists far outweigh female ones. Someone left a comment about how we’re empowering women at the expense of boys that highlights the ridiculousness of the whole argument.

  17. Naomi says:

    Sounds like a pretty heavy book. I don’t think I have time to read it right now, but if I ever do I’ll pick it up. Sounds like its full of discussion-worthy stuff.

  18. Just a person says:

    Sex happens in rape. A rape scene is, unfortunately, also a sex scene. The definition of sexual intercourse is not about the intention, or if it is consensual, but the physical act. I see how you got irritated that people are are labelling it a sex scene (implying it is consensual), but I have a problem when people attribute the wrong things to words. Sex doesn’t have a meaning beyond the act of sexual intercourse.

  19. Martin says:

    Well, no, sex doesn’t mean that, sex actually means male or female. However, using sex as contraction of sexual intercourse is, of course, perfectly acceptable. This is because words are used and having meaning in ways beyond their basic definition. So yes, looking at just the words a sex scene means a scene with sex. But the phrase “sex scene” means more than the sum of its parts and it is common usage that a sex scene refers to an act of consensual sex.

  20. Debbie Moorhouse says:

    It’s not as bad as the Sun newspaper referring to an act of rape in these terms: ‘Later, he made love to her again’. La.

  21. Thea says:

    Just a Person –

    I have a problem when people attribute the wrong things to words. Sex doesn’t have a meaning beyond the act of sexual intercourse.

    But that’s the thing about language, isn’t it? The definitions of words change over time, taking on different implications and layers depending on the context, both in literature and overall as a cultural phenomenon. That’s why there are folks that devote their lives to studying language, including semantics and pragmatics – i.e. linguistics.

    Yes, you are right that “sex” means sexual intercourse. But, as Mark says, at this point in time in our culture, the phrase “sex scene” strongly implies consent.

    For example, “This is Mary’s sex scene” reads very differently than “This is Mary’s rape scene.”

  22. Cathy says:

    For the folks who think sex scene vs rape scene is just semantics, I am curious about why you think we have the word “rape” in our vocabulary at all. Yes, rape is sexual intercourse, but isn’t the point of having a word like rape to help differentiate among the different kinds of sexual intercourse – in this instance a violent, non-consentual encounter? What is the benefit in using a more vague, non-specific term to describe the action in the book, especially in a situation like this that could be significant to a potential reader?

  23. Maischeph says:

    Suppose Mike only witnessed Bones fondling the girl on her chest and privates against her will, but that was the end of what the reader sees and it cuts away. Would anyone refer to this as a “foreplay scene”? Technically actions are being performed that indicate foreplay if we remove the details of who wanted it and who didn’t, although most people would term this molestation. So, technically, the rape scene is a sex scene. But that’s getting bogged down in semantics, isn’t it?

    As Gerd D. stated, rape is a violent act rather than one intended to procreate or result in pleasure. And contrary to the common rape myth, rape is not usually committed because some ugly sex-starved weirdo needs to get laid. Like violence, the majority of rapes are about power. So referring to it as a sex scene is a misnomer, because sexual intercourse as we know it is about procreation and/or pleasure. That’s why we have the term rape, to imply something different. And because rape is so different from sex as most people know it, it’s important to differentiate.

    As Cathy stated, why not use the more appropriate term for something if we have it in our vocabulary? I think it’s safe to assume that most people in this discussion like to read, so language ought to be important to all of us, and the varying nuances thereof. How could we possibly enjoy books as much as we do if authors didn’t crack open a thesaurus now and again?

  24. Celine says:

    This totally idle speculation because I’ve read neither the review in question (that refers to sex) or the book, but is it possible the reviewer was trying to avoid spoilers while at the same time warning of adult content?
    I’m wondering if the reviewer didn’t want to destroy the shock value of when the reader ( along with the character) realises what it is they are actually witnessing?

  25. [...] Work: Gentlemen, recently reviewed by Ana HERE. His next book, Trapped will be published in February 2011 and you can have a sneak preview [...]

  26. [...] Northrop wrote Gentlemen, one of my top reads last year and I was very much looking forward to reading Trapped. It is about a group of kids (and [...]

  27. [...] Northrop wrote Gentlemen, one of my top reads last year and I was very much looking forward to reading Trapped. It is about a group of kids (and [...]

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