Title: The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin

Author: Josh Berk

Genre: Contemporary YA

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: February 2010
Hardcover: 248 pages

Being a hefty, deaf newcomer almost makes Will Halpin the least popular guy at Coaler High. But when he befriends the only guy less popular than him, the dork-namic duo has the smarts and guts to figure out who knocked off the star quarterback. Will can’t hear what’s going on, but he’s a great observer. So, who did it? And why does that guy talk to his fingers? And will the beautiful girl ever notice him? (Okay, so Will’s interested in more than just murder . . .) Those who prefer their heroes to be not-so-usual and with a side of wiseguy will gobble up this witty, geeks-rule debut./em>

Stand alone or series: Stand alone

How did I get this book: Bought.

Why did I read this book: I saw this around and it has nothing but good reviews so I decided to read it.

Review:

WARNING! There will be spoilers!

Please observe the two covers of The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin. The one on the left, that of the Hardcover (US), tells me of a story that is a light-hearted adventure; the one on the right, that of the paperback (UK), tells me something completely different as it suggests mystery and darkness.

I think that this disparity between the two covers is a perfect mirror to what happens within those covers: because the book tries to be many things at the same time and just as the publishers seem to have had problems coming up with one image to define the story, I too, have problems on how to address its many issues when reviewing it.

It begins rather well. The main protagonist and narrator, Will “Hamburger” Halpin, is a deaf, fat kid who decides to take a chance and move from the school for deaf kids to the local high school. His voice is funny and engaging and it amused me to no end. A short example:

The library proved to be a nice refuge. I like the quiet.(That’s a joke).

At first the story seemed to be gravitating towards a cool story about a fat, deaf kid (and I was like, yay DIVERSITY!) and the many issues surrounding his move and the many observations about how deaf kids are supposed to get around in a non-friendly environment and the difference between his previous school and the new school were quite interesting without being preachy or without the feel that I was reading an “issue” book (not that there anything wrong with that – but those can be so heavy handed sometimes) .

Hamburger was an interesting, complex character too: a proud kid, confident at times, but also lonely and insecure at others. I loved how he was ok with being deaf and with being fat (although he did have a hard time when going to swimming lessons at school).

But the things start to pile up: on top of his move and his difficulties with new teachers and a new non-friendly school, there is also the topic of making new friends; being bullied; having a hard relationship with his father; being lonely and wanting a pet which, granted, read as any other run-of-the-mill contemporary YA novel.

But there is also the mystery of a family member who dies mysteriously in a mine ages ago and how he was deaf too and why wasn’t he told? And also, maybe he is a ghost.

AND THEN: a murder happens. I knew it was going to happen because it says right there in the blurb but what I didn’t expect was for it to take over and sort of overshadow everything else. And then, Hamburger and his new dorky pal Devon take upon themselves to investigate the murder which they do and end up solving it. There are many references to the Hardy Boys and I suppose this arc should have been amusing but the truth is I don’t think it worked. At all. I don’t think it worked in terms of tone which is far too light-hearted when dealing with dark topics such as murder, abuse, paedophilia (one of the female teachers has an affair with one of the students but because she is hot and young, it seemed less of an issue somehow, although in fairness, she was appropriately arrested. The word “paedophilia” is never used but I am sure if the teacher had been a man, things would have been very different).

Now, mind you, I am not saying that a book, a story, cannot be many things at the same time or those heavy issues cannot be dealt with humour. Quite the contrary. I think that a good example of the latter is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie and the difference as I see it, lies in the way that comedy is incorporated to the story and how it can even reinforce the points the author is making or the darkest points in the story. I think Alexie does that very, very well and many times over reading his book, I laughed even as my heart broke into a million pieces. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Hanburger Halpin; I felt the humour and comedy in this book were out of place. This is only my opinion of course and as we all know, comedy is quite possibly the hardest thing to write.

I also had problems with other minor…shall I say, trends in the novel.

Like for example, the Dreaded Gay Jokes. As Hamburger starts making friends with Devon, some guys at school make fun of their budding relationship, you know, with the usual Look At Them They Are Boyfriends HA HA. This makes Hamburger self conscious and a couple of times in his narrative he makes sure to tell us that he might be happy about being friends with Devon but you know, “just not in a romantic way.” (because that would be what? REALLY BAD?). Another time, Hamburger’s ex-girlfriend is teaching Devon how to curse in sign language and the curse words were: “Bastard”, “Piss off, Wanker” and…. “Man Love!”.

These things go unchallenged in the text. Not addressed at all, they are just part of the background “picture” – and this makes me uncomfortable as hell because I do believe these things need to be addressed somehow if they are there in the first place. And it doesn’t even have to be directly addressed or a part of Hamburger’s arc. One simple line somewhere, one pair of secondary characters of the same sex making out in the background and ergo, problem solved.

Another thing that made me uncomfortable (and this is the part that gets really spoilery). The boy that gets murdered is a horrible person. He is a bully, a womaniser who posts pictures of the girls he has sex with on the internet and an abuser. The killer ends up being this girl who Hamburger had a crush on and who he could see was having huge problems before they found out she was the killer. She was clearly depressed, she was clearly being abused and she kills the boy because he got her pregnant and he wanted to get rid of the kid and not take responsibility for it on top of constantly beating her up to “convince” her to get rid of it. Now, even though there are references to her having a hard time throughout the novel, these things are brushed off, surmised in the end with (and I paraphrase) his “crime” was bad but hers was worse. Yes, murdering someone is obviously TERRIBLE and in that sense, worse than what the boy was doing but this only serves in the end to NOT have a conversation which is worth having. Because I think there are a much bigger percentage of boys being sexist assholes and abusers than girls being murderers.

Now, before I get called humourless and told that “it is only a book” and “isn’t it realistic, though” let me pre-empt those by saying that 1) I do have a sense of humour but I have learnt that there are certain things that are simply not funny to me; 2) I don’t believe that books are “only” books, words matter to me, books matter to me, hence me writing a review blog; 3) yes, homophobia is realistic; yes, girl’s issues being secondary to boy’s issues is realistic. But, and I think we can all agree about this: they are based on a problematic reality aren’t they?

To sum up: I expect more from the books I read. That’s all there is to it.

Notable Quotes/ Parts: An interesting moment after Hamburger moved to the new school:

“Apparently, I’m ‘profoundly deaf yet intellectually capable’. This yet pissed me off. It’s the kind of thing some of my old classmates would have formed a protest committee over. I’m usually the type to let things slide which maybe was why I was somewhat of an outsider even among my own peeps.”

Additional Thoughts: For a great funny book about issues such as racism, privilege (or lack of) and bullying:

Reviewed HERE.

For a great book with a deaf protagonist:

Reviewed HERE.

Rating: 4 – Bad, but not without some merit

Reading Next: Rage by Jackie Kessler

 

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Ebook available for kindle, nook, sony, and kobo

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10 Responses to Book Review: The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin by Josh Berk

  1. KMont says:

    Just thought I’d mention real quick that my mother is planning to take my six year old daughter to a play this weekend that specifically addresses bullying, which, I think she is awesome for doing so. Especially considering she was bullied at school last week. Yeah, gnashing my teeth over that one.

    I applaud you. I applaud you expecting more from what you read. Won’t be reading this book, the message it seems to send isn’t particularly inspiring me.

  2. Hey, we all have our limits. I had the same issue with the down-playing of DV in Kick by Walter Dean Myers. Like, one character abuses his wife and then it comes to light that she was depressed and acting weird emotionally and he couldn’t deal, so it just seemed like it was okay for the character to be abusive, which was NOT okay for me.

    SO YEAH, hot button much.

    And the gay jokes, that’s just in poor taste, in my opinion.

  3. FiaQ says:

    Random comment: I tried to recall signs (ASL, BSL, ISL, JSL and KSL) that say “man love” and as an insult. I really can’t think of any. Odd.

  4. Angie says:

    I agree with this review totally. Everything about this book was just (is this a pun?) tone deaf. Is it a murder mystery? Is it a wacky coming of age/buddy story? Is it some magical disability narrative? Who knows? It’s a little bit of everything, none of it very well. None of it gelled for me and I was made uncomfortable by the “those deaf kids, with all their protesting, God, what a downer, I just want to be NORMAL!

    I do, however, want to add that I think Diary of a Part-Time Indian has some really problematic language itself. It has been a while since I read it, but I do remember there’s quite a bit of homophobic slurs between the guys and repeated use of the word pussy as an insult. There were so many homophobic slurs my best friend (who is gay) had to stop reading it because he was so insulted. Again, we come back to “is it realistic? would teen boys talk that way?” Maybe, but, as you’ve pointed out, that’s not the main issue. I definitely need to re-read! :D

  5. Ana says:

    Thanks for the comments, everybody!

    @ Angie: GOOD, thank you for your comment. I am happy someone agrees with me. Now, for Part-time, I read the book last year and honestly do not remember the slurs you mention and now I wonder how would I feel if I read it right now.

  6. BrendaC says:

    Was the battered woman defense ever mentioned, or was it just treated as a case of cold-blooded murder? It sucks that the abuse issue wasn’t dealt with, that would really get to me.

  7. Ana says:

    BrendaC: the case was mentioned en passant in the end, half a page worth of information when the MC was recapping what happened in the end of the novel.

  8. Renay says:

    The realism thing! THE REALISM THING. It drives me batty and makes me want to do something crazy like WRITE A BOOK OF MY OWN, someone talk me down, that will never end well, ALERT ALERT. Every time I hear it I feel, more and more, that it’s being used as shorthand for out and out laziness, a quick “in” to let YA readers know they “know how things are”. The beauty of literature is that we don’t have to play to the least common denominator. We can expect more from ourselves and our stories and write the world in ways that analyze and critique but imbue them with a realism that depressing marginalizing language can never achieve with rich and varied characters and settings and plots. This author had a blank slate and could have created a male character perfectly confident in his sexuality and it could have been perfectly realistic. I’ve known teen boys like that because they were my best friends — and this was in the 90s and they weren’t even out, they just seriously didn’t go around disclaiming “I’m not GAY” to themselves and others all the time, just to make sure it was clear. If all we’re going to do is reflect back the hard edge of a reality that’s problematic for the sake of some realism, we’re going to be spinning our wheels for ages. Be the change you want to see, authors, for reals.

  9. [...] teens with its ominous feel, but it’s definitely not a good reflection of the story inside.  One blog review said the struggle with the different looks was a good parallel to the issues with conflicting tones [...]

  10. Bryonna says:

    I really enjoyed The Dark Days Of Hamburger Halpin, it is not only telling you a story of a modern day deaf teen, but it also has a twist at the end which is really cool. I was totally surprised at the end. I thought it was a good idea to make a book that some teens can relate to with the IM and the cussing because we all know that teens do a lot of that. I got the chance to meet the author of this book, I also got my copy of the book signed and we were talking about the book a little bit and when we were he said, and I quote, “That was what I was aiming for, to get not only most teens to read this but also teen girls to read it because looking at the title it seems, like girls wouldn’t even read the book instead they would walk right past it and they would reach for a magazine.” end quote. To me as a girl no magazine can top this book, and Josh hit the nail right on the head. Soon, if he keeps it up he could be the next James Patterson. KEEP ON GOING JOSH!!!

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