Paperback, 352 pages
Published August 1st 2002 by HarperTempest
John (“My father named me after a toilet!”) wrestles with the certainty that no one really knows him not in his miserable home, and certainly not at school. It’s true that no one can guess his hidden thoughts, which are hilarious, razor-sharp observations about lust, love, tubas, algebra, everything. And then there’s his home: his father ran off years ago, so he’s being raised by his mother, who works long hours, and by her boyfriend, whom John calls “the man who is not and never will be my father.” This man is his enemy, an abusive disciplinarian who seems to want to kill John and, in a horrible final confrontation, nearly succeeds.
I’m taking a YA Lit class this summer and the professor included this book in his suggested reading for old school YA. I went into it not knowing anything about the author or even what genre the book is about. I wanted to be surprised. And I was.
I don’t really know how to accurately articulate how wonderful this book is. As I say about so many other novels, it is not perfect by any means but the writing is so incredible it makes up and then some for the little flaws.
Usually, when I am faced with books dealing with realistic situations such as abuse, broken families and neglectful parents, I don’t feel like reading because the pain does not seem worth the payoff at the end. However, You Don’t Know Me sucks you in from the very first page and it doesn’t stop holding onto you until you have reached the very end. Then it spits you out and you are left wondering which earthquake shook your world and why you’re the only one who felt it.
John has a crappy life. A really crappy life. The way he copes with it is by retreating into himself. His observations are so flippant and that flippancy expresses the utter tragedy of his pain so much more eloquently than melodrama and angst ever could have. His sense of self, his identity, his worth, these all have been fractured so much that it is not that we don’t know him but that he doesn’t know himself. He detaches himself from his life, makes himself into this observer who is watching himself getting beaten, his mom deliberately not paying attention to what’s happening when she’s not around. This book is brilliant. It will, if you give it a chance, make you cry and then make you laugh and then make you cry all over again.
If my effusive praise does not convince you, look at these excerpts from the novel and tell me it does not make the breath catch in your throat.
“The piece you have written for us is called “The Gambol of the Caribou.” Now, Mr. Steenwilly, I don’t mean to be critical. What I know about music could be squeezed into a peanut shell, and there would still be room for the peanut. But I looked up “gambol” in the dictionary, and it means to “skip or jump about playfully.” It also means to “caper or frolic.” Caribou are large, ponderous, woolly reindeer. They do not gambol. They do not caper. They do not frolic. And they certainly do not skip. It would be an interesting sight to see a herd of caribou skipping down the tundra, but, Mr. Steenwilly, it would never happen. You could write a piece called “The Caribou Standing Still and Freezing Their Butts Off.” Or “The March of the Caribou.” Or even “The Stampede of the Caribou.” But “The Gambol of the Caribou” is not such a great image to build a piece of music around.” ― David Klass, You Don’t Know Me
“Once upon a time there was a boy who had a life that was not a life. He lived in a house that was not a house with a father who was not his father. His friends were not true friends and basically he had nothing at all going for him. On the number line of boys he was a zero, neither positive nor negative, neither whole nor fractional.
Then one day a princess agreed to go to basketball game with him. Fool that he was, he had a fleeting moment of glee. He thought he could become a musician, a scholar, a romantic figure. But something cannot be made out of nothing…”
You Don’t Know Me, David Klass