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.
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:
For a great book with a deaf protagonist:
Rating: 4 – Bad, but not without some merit
Reading Next: Rage by Jackie Kessler
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