A few summers ago I rented the movie adaptation of this book. It starred Miles Teller and Shaileene Woodley, so I figured it would probably be good. They were rising stars at the time, part of the “it” trio that also included Ansel Elgort. The film appealed to me in a weird existential indie sort of way, but in the end I didn’t really like it. The plot seemed thin, I didn’t understand the point, and ultimately I concluded my viewing as an indifferent observer. No harm, no foul.
A few months later I found out that the movie had been adapted from a book and I immediately put it on my “TBR” list. Instinctively I somehow knew that I would like it, that the source material would fix whatever I hadn’t seen in the adaptation. Sometimes you just get that vibe, like you’re waiting for some internal thought process that isn’t there despite the voiceover narration, and The Spectacular Now is one of those times. The story Tim Tharp weaves isn’t unsuited to the silver screen, but it was far better in print. Sure, Miles Teller played a great Sutter Keely, but ultimately it’s the way the character thinks and his narration that makes this book as good as it is. Because even though there’s a whole cast of characters in this tiny Oklahoma town, this book is all about Sutter.
You see, Sutter is a classic character. He’s your sure-shooting, wise cracking, loveable guy that everyone goes to for a good story, a good time, and a good beer. He’s mildly alcoholic and honestly not the smartest kid in class, but someone who likes to talk and to listen. He’s a people person, the kind that finds something to like in everyone, and so he puts more effort into getting a laugh then getting an A on an algebra exam. He gets high off the attention and the smiles, cruising through life on charisma and charm because that’s just who he is.
Ultimately though, his story is rather sad. He smiles and he laughs and he climbs onto roofs as a grand gesture, but when you see him from an objective distance you have to wonder where he’s going. On a purely resume level, Sutter is a screw up and no matter what spin he puts on it for others, this is the only way he sees himself. He turns his mistakes into stories, laughs off his failures, but at the end of the day he isn’t proud of the things he’s done – not really. He knows he’s messed up, but hesitates on fixing it.
You could say it’s because he doesn’t care enough or because he’s lazy, but I think it’s because he really does try and put others before himself. He tries to make his friends laugh because he wants them to be happy and he tries to get Aimee to stand up for herself because she’s been beaten down. He sees these things because he understands people and so he makes it his mission to help them instead of helping himself. As a result he’s stopped believing that anyone could really love him, though he continues to court the laughs and the stories to build himself up and pretend it’s enough to get by. Sutter would never admit it – even to himself – but he’s really the type of guy that feels alone in a crowded room. So he does whatever it takes to stand out instead of just wallowing it and maybe there’s something to be said for that.
Sometimes I read books for plot, but within the contemporary genre I often look for stories like Sutter’s. I look for characters whom I can relate to and people that I can sympathize with and understand, people whose journeys I can follow as if they were my own. I come away from these books feeling like a sponge, like someone who’s absorbed the moods and feelings of a fictional character, but I never stop reading them no matter how they tear me up inside. Why? Because somewhere out there I know that that author understands how it feels, understand an emotion enough to fictionally build it from the ground up. The context may change around a story or a character, but the emotions are universal and I will never give up on books that succeed in showing them as realistically as they are experienced. After all, that’s what makes great literature.