review: Knockout Games

KG cover2datetitle: Knockout Games

author: Greg Neri

date: Carolrhoda Labs; August 2014

main character: Erica “Fish” Asher

Note: There are minor spoilers in this review. I could not avoid them. ARC courtesy of NetGalley.

Greg Neri is unpredictable if nothing else. His writings have ranged from Surf Mules to Yummy to Ghetto Cowboy to Hello, I’m Johnny Cash. And now, Knockout Games.

If you’re an adult, if you’re over, let’s be generous and say 30, you need to get your hands on an advanced copy and begin reading this book from the back. Start with the conversation between Greg and Carrie Dietz, the school librarian who gave Neri the idea for Knockout Games.

It didn’t take me long to realize I didn’t like Erica Asher, aka Fish, the books main character. She’s weak, indecisive and has little to say. She’s a white girl with long red hair and is a new student in an urban school in St. Louis filled with Black and Latino students. Destiny is the only person in the school who bothers to become friends with Erica and she’s the one who gives her the moniker “Fish”.

“I been watching you ever since you came to Truman. All you do is sit there and look at people, filming them and what not. It’s like that camera’s your tank and you just watching everyone pass you by. And with that hair, you the same color as Nemo, Fish. Yeah, that’s what you are.”

Erika and her mother move to St. Louis from Kansas after her parents break up. Erica’s mom finds a job working nights in a lab and can’t afford much of an apartment for them to live in.

Fish’s friendship with Destiny and her access to a camera gives Fish access to Kalvin, ‘King K’, and the knockout games.

Fish makes decision that I thought were just plain stupid. But, I’m not a teenage girl growing up in a new city with just my mom in the 21st century. My teen years are far behind me and I just ought to know better.

I’ve never really experienced this before while reading YA: realizing that a books just wasn’t written for me. Fish was true to her teenage self, figuring out the kind of person she wanted to be, what she valued and how to maintain relationships. Neri reveals her talents to us, but Fish has no idea what she’s capable of doing. This book was not written for those of us oldheads!

As an adult, I wanted clarity on Destiny and her relationship with Fish, but relationships are complicated, especially for teens. Remember those weeks you didn’t speak to your best friend and suddenly you were spending hours on the phone? There was no more of an explanation for the not talking as there was for the sudden forgiveness and certainly there weren’t pages of dialog between the two of you about your ‘feelings’.

Fish’s ignorance, which I should politely call ‘naiveté” is magnified in her relationship with Kalvin, the smooth talking, game playing, King K. First person narrative gives us no room to figure him out, it just gave us Kalvin in Fish’s eyes. We meet him and are pulled in by his soft voice with a slight rasp and piercing green eyes just she is. We feel her falling for him.

His hand engulfed mine. It was all rough on the outside, he’d seen battles. But his inside palm was soft. He pulled me up and his height caught me by surprise. He seem about two feet taller than me.

Kalvin teaches the Tokers about classic movies, boxing and how to be a leader. Yet, he’s as elusive to them as he is to us, the readers. Just as he seems to be spilling his emotions, he yanks all of ours with a line that has us doubting anything he’s said. Yea, he probably saw Fish as soon as she hit town.

In the conversation at the end of the book Dietz tells Neri “I feel like a lot of YA authors write great books for adults but not necessarily for teens, but the books that you write are definitely for teens. You write in a way that’s real, the way they really talk. They recognize those worlds.”

They recognize the knockout game, an activity that I heard about a few months ago on the national news. This game has actually been played in Dietz’s school for years and it involves students picking random strangers, walking up to them and hitting them hard enough to knock them out.

Young people don’t often consider the consequences of their actions, but that’s what they get in Knockout Games. What kind of people do we become when we join gangs and participate in such violence? Don’t get me wrong, Neri’s no preacher. He gives this to teens in ways they don’t even know what’s been put on their mind. And, teachers wise enough to teach with these books will find a multitude of ways to reach their students.

Knockout Games is a tough read for us old heads as it shows the many ways we’re letting our young people down. It’s a tough read for teens as it reflects one of the ways they’ve chosen to fight for their survival. The tough reads show us who we are and leave room for us to figure out who we’re going to become.

I can’t help but wonder what Neri will write about next.



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