I am really struggling to know where to start the discussion about this book, as it stirred so many strong emotions that my allegiances and sympathies constantly shifted back and forth, until I found myself completely 'sitting on the fence'.
At times I just wanted to put my arms around Ben, let him pour out all his worries and troubles, then help to set him on a hopefully more fulfilling and worthwhile path. Then he would do something so crass and thoughtless, that I just wanted to slap him and tell him that I wanted nothing more to do with him.
Such is the maturity and intensity of Brendon's superb narrative, with totally believeable and genuine characterisations, relationships and situations.
The book is brutal in its vivid descriptions of the progression through the spectrum of anti-establishment activities, which the gang participates in, and with which they appear to be sending out a challenge, both to authority and to each other, as they increase in intensity and violence ... gang membership and violence, teenage sex, underage smoking, alcohol abuse, banned substance abuse, knife culture, illegal possession of firearms, underage driving and murder...
The writing is also perceptive, sensitive, well considered and balanced, when we manage to get Ben on his own and see his true personality begin to develop and expand ... Loneliness, aloneness, unhappiness, dysfunctional families who do not communicate, the need to succeed, the feelings that he should start to try and find someone with whom he can share his life. These are all emotions and observations which Ben is more than adaquately able to express , when he puts his mind to it and he is not being led and influenced by others in the gang, or is acting the big shot in front of them, with always something to prove. He is actually quite astute and observational when he takes the time to 'people watch', concluding that most of them are inherently unhappy and spend most of their time 'chasing their tails', in an effort to appear trendy and part of the 'in crowd'.
At what point, Ben wonders, was his innocence lost, when did everyone become so judgemental of him that he felt the need to close himself off from the outside world into a place of safety and security by hiding behind his hoodie. Why is it that the only person he feels really wants to talk and (more importantly) listen to him, understands him and is sensitive to his vulnerability is Joe, a disreputable tramp?
Joe is perhaps one of the best supporting characters in the book, although he makes the least appearances. Despite his own obvious fall from the mainstream of life, Joe comes across as an educated man, who is quietly aware and sensitive to Ben's inner turmoil and is genuinely eager for Ben to get on with his life and make something of himself. Things are going well between them, until Joe badly mis-reads the situation and his relationship with Ben, and makes what is to Ben, a devastating revelation, his reaction to which sends them both into a downwards spiral, with disastrous consequences for both and leading to their combined ultimate sacrifice.
I am not sure whether Brendon deliberately wrote the book in such a way, that the reader is almost forced into this position as a neutral observer, however, after much contemplation, I came up with these clear thoughts about the book .... It is, in almost equal measure ....
Uncomfortable, yet unputdownable
Would I give this book to a Young Adult to read? ... possibly.
For many, it would certainly be all the deterrent needed to avoid this path to certain, total and ultimate self destruction. However, I would worry that for the certain, albeit small minority group, it might only serve as a catalyst to magnify, glorify and promote to exalted status, the power which 'Hoodie' and 'The Shady Boys', think they command.
On the other hand, I think that 'Hoodie' should be compulsory reading for all guardians of young adults, about to enter the 'Secondary', or 'Middle School' phase of their education. 'Hoodie' is an inspirational work of fiction, which speaks to everyone, regardless of age or social class, so if you don't think this scenario is ever one that you will face with your own young adult, then be sure to track the character of Isabelle, very closely.
The poignant, emotional and personal poem, with which Brendon chooses to close the story on 'The Shady Boys', is a fitting tribute and brings a closure and finality to the book, unlike anything else he may have written in its place.
On a final, lighter note, I loved the cover graphics for 'Hoodie', the design for which became apparent as I followed Ben on his travels to the skatepark, and was brought full circle by its obvious link to the book's title. So many book covers have no cohesion to the storyline in any way, that 'Hoodie' provided a refreshing change and set the scene before I even started to read.