Twelve-year-old Eugene Smalls is a young man with problems. The first problem is his name. Smalls fits him, since he’s one of the smallest kids in his class. The name Eugene has been reduced to the humiliatingly girlish “Genie,” and people keep forgetting that he now calls himself “Huge.” He’s a bit too smart for his own good. His father has left. His mother loves him but is overworked, and puberty has made his sister Neecey incomprehensible. His attempts to fit in range from useless to disastrous. He has what could be called an anger management problem and an unfortunate incident in school leaves him with a reputation as an incorrigible. His only friend is a bloodthirsty thug of a stuffed frog named Thrash—named for what Huge used to do to him in moments of frustration. Huge’s other friend may be a football teammate who’s as much a misfit as he is, and his view of the world comes with a Holden Caulfield-ish cynicism. But Huge believes his salvation lies in emulating world-weary gumshoes like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, heroes of the novels his doting grandmother gives him. When she tasks him with finding out who vandalized the sign outside the old folks’ home where she lives, Huge is off and running.

James Fuerst is brilliant in the way he immerses the reader both in Huge’s mixed-up head and the world in which he lives. His take on the class warfare and teenage sexual politics of a small New Jersey town is at once hilarious and poignant. “Are you a slut?” seems the most pressing question put to the girls. And Fuerst’s understanding of how the mind of an impulsive but highly intelligent preteen is liable to misinterpret just about everything is spot on. Huge’s conclusions about why Neecey goes to a particular party, for example, are both preposterous and perfectly understandable. Who hasn’t committed such a leap of illogic when they were 12? And who hasn’t felt Huge’s humiliation when everything you thought you knew for sure was wrong? We can only hope that our own comeuppance led to the sad wisdom Huge embraces at the end of this wonderfully written debut.

Arlene McKanic writes from South Carolina.

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