TW: death, oppression and violence based on sexual orientation
Can one angry boy save the world?
I have not read a more accurate tagline in a very long time. Heathens by Jonah Bergan follows Holden, an extremely angry teenager in the aftermath of the fall of civilization as we know it. This is a ‘young adult’ low fantasy, dystopian novel, but is definitely more on the violent and explicit side of young adult novels.
The book follows a teen Holden as he bands with others in a dystopian world in order to survive. The United States fractured over the polarized fight for LGBTQ+ rights. Once the government fell, Texas took most of the Midwest, creating the Republic of Texas, and a Christian based faction took over the Northeast. The United States retained some land in the south. And for Holden and other members of the LGBTQ+ community it is all about survival and resisting the two major societies who think LGBTQ+ people are dangerous. Different communities form, break a part, and reform, all with different goals and philosophies. Ultimately, Holden meets a very good friend, who turns into more than a friend, who helps Holden finds himself and makes peace with his past.
Did I mention that LGBTQ+ people have developed special talents in response to the prolonged oppression? Yes! Each character has a small power (think talent rather than superpower) that they use and cultivate throughout the book. Holden has a telekinesis talent where he can push and pull things. Other folkx can produce sparks or small fires, have increased strength, and even heal others. Their talents are something they can train to become stronger.
Holden is the embodiment of anger. Through his character development, he starts at a decent anger level and starts to get angrier and angrier as more incidents happened, especially as it pertained to the people Holden loves. I get it. In my own work, I often talk with students who feel like they are pushed down and pushed down by life. This is often a manifestation of the power and oppression dynamics that exist in our own world. At some point, the only reaction these students have is anger. This is about survival. Without an expression of anger, many of these students, and Holden in the book, simply would not survive. (I do want to say that survival could be on a bunch of different levels – from retention in school to life to having a home). While Holden is angry the entire time, his character development is nuanced and full of pain. He was able to harness his anger into developing his talent and also become very successful of hitting camps of enemies, breaking them, and spreading fear around the name Holden.
Without giving away the ending of the story or any of the themes/messages at the end, I thought the end of the book was extremely rational. Okay, I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but for how anger-filled the entire book is, I guess I was not expecting what the author intended for all along. Maybe I was too caught up in the cynicism of Holden. Whatever it was the rationalism I felt after finishing the book swept over me, I sat there, and all I could say was… “Huh.” You will have to determine what you think about the ending yourself. I think there are multiple interpretations and reaction that are possible depending on your frame and lived-experience.
Unfortunately, I did not like the writing style. I understand that this book is written from Holden’s perspective and he is extremely mad. In fact, I think the writing style absolutely fits the perspective of the narrative well. The short sentence. The insistent mostly rhetorical rephrased questions. The statements of anger. This all adds tremendously to the feel I got as a reader. But I was endlessly frustrated with it. Maybe that is a good thing and maybe that was intentional. It actually reminds me when I read Catcher in the Rye (a coincidence I guess ;)). When I first read Catch in the Rye (and I guess to this day), I hate the character of Holden Caulfied for many reasons. One of those reason is the dialogue coming from Caulfield – his style and how he talks. After I finished the book for the second time, I realized that the reasons I hate Holden Caulfield as a character is the very reason that makes Catcher in the Rye such a great book (Yes, I like Catcher in the Rye…)! Holden in Catcher evokes a feeling out of me and so does Holden from Heathens. So my dislike of the writing style does not really accurately reflect how I liked the overall book. Interesting in how that works out…
Overall, I enjoyed Heathens. I had to take breaks in between chapters just to get away from the constant anger. I would recommend this book to those who enjoy a dystopian novel all about resisting the dominant culture. Go check it out!
Final Rating: 3.9/5