by Adam Levin
reviewed by Jon Duelfer
Illustration by Edward Steed
Narrations from the perspective of a child are difficult to pull off. The writer has to balance childlike reasoning with some level of adultlike awareness that captivates the reader. It often comes off as weird and unrealistic.
In Kid Positive, Adam Levin finds the sweet spot. He narrates as an adult reflecting on his childhood memories, as if he were the child again. This enables Levin to make witty, adultlike observations and remarks though the eyes of a kid. The blend of time and perspectives allows Levin to create a story that is outright hilarious.
The story is divided into sections that have a title and date, akin to journal entries. By using hints about the narrator’s age throughout the story – he’s in eighth grade in 1988 – we get introduced to a young boy about 5-6 years old.
After using the toilet, I stepped up on the create and washed my hands twice so my father would be proud of me. Then I remembered he couldn’t see everything. He wouldn’t know what I’d done unless I told him. And I knew that if I told him he’d tel me not to show off…
Much of the humor comes through this medium: kids clearly have these feelings internally, they just don’t know how to articulate them yet. An adult reflecting on their emotional impulses as a child, with the ability to articulte what they were actually thinking, is pretty funny.
The plot – if a series of memories from different parts of the kid’s life can be considered a plot – kicks off when the kid finds baby rabbits in his backyard. He tells his mother that he touched them, knowing full well that she would have to adopt them (because a rabbit will leave its children if it smells danger, the kid explains). Levin’s simplistic prose is seen here.
She reached into the hold and removed the rabbit. It sat in her hand. It was smaller than my sister Rachel’s foot.
They bring the rabbits inside and try to take care of them. But they don’t know what to feed them, and by morning, most of the baby rabbits have died.
My mother called a pet shop for advice. The owner told her to bring him the rabbits, both the dead and the living, that they’d make good food for some of the snakes. He said this over speakerphone…and my mom hung up on him.
This scene displays two key themes that are pursued for the rest of the story. The first is a dark, somewhat nihilistic humor that is shown through the indifference of adolescence; the situation after the baby rabbits’ death is humorous in the way it’s shrugged off by the pet store owner and the narrator. The second is a general interest in animals.
Mergatroid was the perfect name for the turtle at the pet store, and I knew that instantly, but by the time my mother asked me what I wanted to name it we were in the car on our way to McDonald’s and, on top of having just been given a pet, I was minutes away form apple pie in a box. I was so exited that I lost my grasp on the name. I knew that an “R” was near a “T” and a “D,” and I tried to combine the sounds in various ways to get to the name, except all I was about to come up with was Gertrude…
Not surprisingly, Mergatroid – or Gertrude – also dies.
In another memory, he goes to a karate show with his parents. His dad makes fun of the instructor. The guy calls his father on stage and shames him. The narrator describes his dad, walking up onto the stage, as “bald and weighed too much.” The perception of his father has changed drastically since the first memory.
The kid’s personality grows throughout his memories, especially how he perceives and reacts to those around him. In his early teens, he plays with his cat by throwing it as far as he can. The cat seems to like it, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a weird way to play with it.
Had you asked me if I thought the cat had feelings, I probably would have told you I thought it did. That would have seemed like what you were trying to get at, and I would have wanted to be agreeable.
Compare this with his personality towards the end of the story, now in his late teens. He is somewhat of a bully to another kid in school, and reflects on it.
Had you asked me if I thought Giles Crowley had feelings, I would probably have told you that I had feelings, because that would have addressed what I would have thought you were secretly trying to get at with your question, and I’d have wanted you to know that I was smarter than you.
Some odd things
Although the compilation of memories was seriously funny and outlined a progression in the character’s personality, I found a couple of them to be out of place.
The first is towards the beginning, when the mother is trying to explain existence to the narrator, who is only 6-7 years old. It’s a pseudo-philosophical conversation that would be funny if a kid could speak like that, but it comes off as unbelievable and out of place compared to the other memories.
The second is when he tells his friend the story of his parents returning their dog, Puffy, because it wouldn’t stop peeing inside the house. Tommy, another kid on the bus, accuses him of making up the story.
“You made the end up,” Tommy Esposito, a kid a grade above me with an oily nose, said. He sat across the aisle from us, and he’d eavesdropped. “Or if you didn’t make up the end,” Tommy said, “then you made up the beginning. The whole thing is way to pat and ironic. It’s like one those O. Henry stories, but shitter, because there isn’t even a moral about how people should be.”
The interaction here does not seem realistic for middle schoolers. I can remember my typical conversations in middle school, and they were nothing like this. Maybe I was just a bit behind the curve, though.
Kid Positive is a hilarious story. I’m not sure if I had ever read a piece of fiction like this – other than comic books and the like – that made me laugh as much. It certainly changes what I think I should expect from a conventional short story format.
I think Adam Levin could appeal to a large audience – larger than the standard set of short story readers – with this hilarious story.