When Thomas Clarke’s Catholic high school is forced to close, Thomas must attend a Chicago public high school. Academically challenging, extremely competitive, and close to his family’s house; West Ridge Preparatory Academy is Thomas’ choice. But now that he’s at the school, challenges seem to be endless. Football, A/P classes, Honor’s Society, a slimy principle, and getting used to a secular student body is a lot for anyone to handle during the course of a year. Now Thomas must face all of that and more. Chicago politics seems to be forcing his father to sell the family business. And, oh, did I mention? The United States’ economy looks like it’s on the brink of collapse.
Does Thomas have the strength of character necessary to make it through this final year?
A quick read of the book blurb and anyone can tell this book has potential. A Catholic young man must face his Senior year at a new-to-him public high school. It promises to be a tale of very real life challenges that I would guess students everywhere – even those not transferring to a new school, even those attending high school, and even those schooling at home – would face and could connect with. And yet, the book doesn’t quite do what it set out to accomplish.
Don’t get me wrong, Rahlfs writes well. It was a pleasure reading a work that attempted to stretch itself into literature: longer sentences, more advanced words, technically correct. Yes. That part of the novel was a pleasure and, perhaps, raised my expectations of the story itself.
I really wanted to like the main character, Thomas Clarke. Standing up for truth is never easy, and it seems Thomas must do it at every turn. And that’s just the problem. It seems that it as every turn – on every page – Thomas is lecturing any one person on the nature of Truth, or Love, or Beauty. He doesn’t waste an opportunity to quote Plato or Cicero – pointing out they are pagan. Pointing out they grasped Truth. Trying inspire others to do the same through long lectures to the reader disguised as papers, speeches, or conversations with his friends. At one point, he even walks up to a chalkboard to instruct the teacher (and the rest of the class) on the nature of Truth.
As such, he was nearly impossible to relate to. Too mature for his age, his speech was stiff and formal. Even sitting among his friends around the cafeteria table, he didn’t descend to the use of contractions. Not even the saints lived as perfectly as Thomas Clarke does within this novel. In fact, only one man I know of lived to the standards the author has set for Thomas. And that man, 2100 years ago, did it with love. Not speeches.
There is danger in setting the bar so high – of having a character live so perfectly in Truth. That of getting it wrong. The danger of being on this side of heaven and so of not being, yet, in complete understanding of truth. And that is Thomas. But Thomas doesn’t see this. Worse, the narrator doesn’t see this.
As a result, Thomas’ pride and arrogance are portrayed as intelligence and virtue and set up as an impossible standard that Catholics should aspire to. For example, Thomas Clarke is careful to point out to his girl friend (and the reader) that he hangs two “humility reminders” on his bedroom wall. A map of the universe is there to remind him “that in relation to all of it, he was nothing more than a tiny little speck of dust” (89). The other “humility reminder” is a picture of his deceased grandparents to remind him of death, as “part of self-knowledge is realizing one’s mortality…[Thomas’] grandparents were the most loving people [he has] ever known, but they died…like we all will” (89-90).
While the above statements are technically true, they are lacking the nuances that bring fullness to the faith.
Where is the faith in this statement? Indeed, we are not merely specks in the universe but creatures created in the image of our God! Lilies He clothes, birds He feeds!
Where is the hope in this statement? Death is not final for us.
Where is the love in this statement? He doesn’t pray for repose of the souls of his grandparents? Only, “they are gone.”
Indeed, where is the charity? As much as Thomas is portrayed as the epitome of virtue, non-Catholics are portrayed as utterly lacking in any virtue. There is the fat football player, Rex, a complete and utter slave to the senses and with seemingly zero redeemable qualities. The Hispanic principal without principles; slimy and self-serving, never to show even a hint of concern for the students. The football coach, a man who is content to coast to retirement with the title “coach” by not actually coaching any football. Teachers are idiots. Richard, his friend – the most real portrayal of the lot – funny but cynical. Politicians, fire inspectors, a secretary, a pretty girl at school, the girl Richard’s brother will marry, the list goes on and on and on of caricatures of people who are so utterly depraved that they are only suitable for Thomas’ condescending commentary, disguised as moral platitudes.
Unfortunately, included in all of these stereotypes, are racial stereotypes. They make for uncomfortable reading and really have no place in a novel that is trying to stand out by standing up for truth.
The book isn’t all bad. There are moments of hilarity. Richard, Thomas’ friend, is especially good at providing levity to any situation:
“Someone has been asking about you; she wanted to know if you had a girlfriend. I said no. Was I correct?…look at the last table, all the way by the wall. Do you see the girl with blonde hair?” Sitting there was a tall, tanned, stunningly beautiful girl with flowing blonde hair. She was chewing gum and texting on a phone. Thomas nodded in the affirmative when asked if he could see her clearly. Then Richard stated dismissively, “Well, it’s not her. Forget about her. You are nothing and nobody to that girl. She doesn’t even know you exist.”
Funny stuff! And very “senior boy,” at least of the young men that I see and have seen. I wish there was more of that throughout the book.
I appreciate what Michael Rahlfs is trying to say with this novel. Truth is real. The pagans saw it. We can see it. Truth is Good. God is good. Unfortunately, the message got lost along the way.
I received a complimentary eARC of this book. This did not affect my opinions of the book, or my review.
What You Need to Know
- Role Models/Authority Figures – Thomas’ parents are married and are good Catholics. But the Catholics in this book are stiff with Catechesis and philosophy and from a lack of charity. Most other adults are terribly flawed.
- Violence –
- Langage – None that I remember.
- Sexual Content – Thomas and Marie have a very chaste friendship/dating thing going on (courtship?). References by Richard to his brother’s fiance in less than stellar fashion (the two marry because she is pregnant),
- Consumerism – Talk against the Internet, SmartPhones, media, popular culture. They are not bad in and of themselves, but Thomas is sure that they are used in “a disordered and improper manner. It would be false to claim that those media outlestts are utilized primarily for what is good, true, and beautiful” (118). But later positive references are made to Magnum PI, True Grit, and Princess Bride. No decent music made post 1965.
- Drinking/Smoking/Drugs – Football players have party with sex, drugs, and rock and roll (not described, just mentioned)
- Religion –The book is intended to be a Catholic novel. By their own admission, characters were heavily influenced by “The Imitation of Christ”. I haven’t read it to make any connection.
- Other –
- Neat stuff –