Native Arizonan Tom Leveen, who lives and works in Phoenix, is a YA fiction machine and the author of "Party" and "Zero." His third novel, "manicpixiedreamgirl," came out earlier this month, and he's already working on numbers four and five (and maybe even beyond) right this minute. Look out this October for "Sick," Leveen's first foray into the world of horror.
Tyler Darcy finds himself on the horns of a dilemma, high-school style. He's been crushing hard on mystery girl Rebecca Webb since freshman year, but he's also been going out with the eminently likable Sydney Barret (yes, that's Syd Barrett) for about the same amount of time -- someone who supports him and likes his writing and fools around with him.
On the night that Tom Leveen's "manicpixiedreamgirl" opens, things have finally come to a head. Tyler is in the park drinking with his two best friends -- Robby and Justin, who provide wise counsel mostly in the form of crude jokes -- to celebrate the publication of a short story Tyler wrote. The thing is, the story is about a girl, and it's not Sydney, something that is abundantly clear to Sydney as soon as she gets her hands on a copy of the magazine.
In the course of the novel, which technically takes place in one night, we get the full story through flashbacks -- how Tyler and Sydney fell into a relationship, how Tyler nursed his crush on Becky from afar nevertheless and then, eventually, became friends with her.
And on the night in question, Tyler is fielding phone calls and texts from both Sydney and Becky, and trying to figure out where he stands. Becky is troubled, and needs him, but Syd is the girl who's been there for him all along. Is Becky just a stereotypical manic pixie dream girl -- "the adorably eccentric sweetheart who dazzles a broody male lead," as Syd puts it -- or is there something more to Tyler's feelings for her?
Leveen handles the tensions masterfully, and he's particularly good at creating characters who feel real, which is to say complicated and contradictory. His Tyler is just as hard on himself as anybody else; he knows he's behaving like an asshole with Syd, and he tells us so. And Sydney and Becky both feel like real girls, even though part of the plot is Tyler's inability to fully perceive them as such, because he's a teenage boy whose perceptions are necessarily limited.
It helps that Tyler has Gabby, an older, wiser sister who sometimes sees things he doesn't and clues him (and the reader) in. She reprimands and instructs him, too, like when she realizes that Tyler has just sent Syd a lame, half-hearted text after hearing that Syd's debating team won first place. She demands Tyler's phone and crafts a second text to make up for the first.
"The hell's this?" Tyler says when he sees the apologetic text message that's supposed to be from him.
"Her team won first place," Gabby tells him. "And you're all like, 'Hidey-ho, whatever, nice job, have a neat summer.' God you're dumb sometimes."
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Like Leveen's earlier novels, "Party" and "Zero," "manicpixiedreamgirl" gives us characters we care about, swimming in a broth that's just the right mix of drama and comic relief, salty and sweet. If it feels like it would make a good movie, that's because it probably would -- and that's not intended as a backhanded compliment intimating that the book is somehow less than it should be.
It just means that in spite of the success of films like "Spring Breakers," and other less notorious movies that depict adolescents wreaking cartoon-like havoc, there's still a hunger for real stories of real teenagers writ large, like the ones in the now ancient but inimitable "The Breakfast Club" -- and Leveen knows how to write them.
Deborah Sussman leads the Downtown Phoenix Book Group at MADE.