Novel: Winger by Andrew Smith | Goodreads
Release Date: May 14, 2013
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Ryan Dean West is a fourteen-year-old junior at a boarding school for rich kids in the Pacific Northwest. He’s living in Opportunity Hall, the dorm for troublemakers, and rooming with the biggest bully on the rugby team. And he’s madly in love with his best friend Annie, who thinks of him as a little boy.
With the help of his sense of humor, rugby buddies, and his penchant for doodling comics, Ryan Dean manages to survive life’s complications and even find some happiness along the way. But when the unthinkable happens, he has to figure out how to hold on to what’s important, even when it feels like everything has fallen apart.
Filled with hand-drawn info-graphics and illustrations and told in a pitch-perfect voice, this realistic depiction of a teen’s experience strikes an exceptional balance of hilarious and heartbreaking.
I’ve always been eager to pick up this book, but I wasn’t expecting to love it nearly as much as I did. To be honest, I thought that it was overhyped, because I don’t normally do well with young boy narrators; usually, I get annoyed because they’re too immature or not relatable enough. But then I actually read it and I completely got it, why everybody talked about it.
Winger is a successful book. It somehow encapsulates the hilarity and strangeness of being fourteen – in older contexts – with the pulsing undertones of issues beneath it. It clearly explains rugby in a way that even I could understand, and it made me wholeheartedly affectionate for the narrator. It came out of nowhere, and definitely makes my Best of 2014 list.
Ryan Dean is a really great guy to narrate the novel. He’s gawky and awkward, but social enough where it’s not uncomfortable; he’s athletic and academic but flawed in some of his decisions. He feels like a legitimate person, and that value is worth so much in today’s literature. I thought he was oddly charming, definitely clever. His story was important.
Ryan Dean’s struggle arose primarily from his age. Despite being a wicked great winger, a position in rugby, everyone still looked at him as a kid. He was intelligent but was still driven by the same process of most fourteen-year old boys. (At least, I’m assuming, because I’ve never been a fourteen-year old guy.) He thought about fitting in and sex and school and sports, this entire hodgepodge of coming-of-age issues coupled with deeper problems that came about from his particular point of view.
This year, he was put in Opportunity Hall nicknamed “O Hall” because he was caught hacking a teacher’s phone so he could call his best friend on her birthday. Aside from being apart from his old roomies, JP and Sean, he was bunked up with the one guy who he can’t stand. Chaz is the guy who gets him to try beer for the first time, wakes him up when he has a fever to play poker, forces him to do embarrassing tasks across campus and get in even more trouble with administration.
That’s another thing: this book handles teen life very well. There’s a lot of cursing – something to be careful of – and talk about drinking, and all that. It’s not overdone and it’s not understated, but there’s a nice balance between having enough of that struggle to keep it realistic but not making it overtly heavy. It’s truly a coming-of-age in that sense.
Winger wasn’t only a successful book, but a surprising one. I was not expecting it to have the impact that it did. What’s more, I cared a lot about the characters and their relationships, which were surprisingly complex.
Ryan Dean was in love with Annie, his best friend who would forever view him as the immature little boy. Ryan Dean was also the roommate of the biggest jerk on the rugby team, Chaz, who everybody generally agreed was insufferable. His best friend Joey was gay, a senior on the team, and Ryan Dean had to observe all the guys acting strangely around him because they didn’t know how to talk to him. Despite all that, Ryan Dean’s adventures in O-Hall led him to strange encounters with friends he never would have expected.
A lot of people think that younger kids don’t have as big of problems (myself, included, sometimes) but they just have a different set.
Ryan Dean went through a lot throughout the course of the book, and his development was phenomenal. He was at once uncertain and wildly confident, strange and relatable. It was that intense mixture that made him a joy to read about and one of my favorite narrators of the year. He’s shy, but then he goes and puts on a crazy costume and acts out at school in a blatantly egregious way, and it balances out in a back-and-forth pull.
His friends were fascinating too, in strange ways. JP was a regular guy, who came into conflict with Ryan Dean throughout the book. Seanie was a hilarious – although slightly disturbing – hacker kid who thrived off knowing secrets and exploiting them to mess with people (not maliciously, but definitely harmfully.) Additionally, characters like Megan and Joey (my favorite!) added surprising depth to an embellished coming-of-age. Despite the hijinks, there’s an honest quality to Winger that keeps it entirely refreshing.
By the way, I definitely think the pranks in Winger make it even more spectacular. It has a bit of the feel of Looking for Alaska, told in a bit more of a lighthearted spin due to both Ryan Dean’s age and his separate set of struggles.
While the scenarios displayed might not be 100% relatable, the ideas behind them were. For example, Ryan Dean grew apart from a few friends throughout the book and that was handled beautifully; it didn’t come out of nowhere, it didn’t come out too gradually, but it was the compilation of several issues that eventually just made him realize that they could never be close again.
It’s a long read but the pacing is phenomenal. It’s a lot of pages but the mixed medium of graphic novel panels added some additional flavor. The length is truly due to getting to know Ryan Dean closely, and it never feels like it drags on because he’s always getting in some sort of mischief. If he’s not, then his thoughts are reflective and poignant, the type that pull me in long enough to want to read another page.
I won’t reveal anything about the ending – and the subsequent emotional devastation – but it was totally out of the blue. Despite that, Smith built up an excellent sense of foreboding through a masterful control of suspense and story threads. There are subplots buried in this book that you don’t even realize are subplots until halfway through.
I was so happy with Winger. Happy perhaps isn’t the right word, but satisfied. I was inherently compelled by Ryan Dean’s story, and the personable way in which it was relayed. From the everyday tangles of first being a teenager – and other firsts – to the more complicated interweaving situations that were dealt with in the novel, this plot shines. These characters matter. It’s gotten several awards and it definitely deserves it; I want to give this book to every kid I know.
I absolutely loved it.