Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Walter Kim's 'Thumbsucker'

By Mladen Baudrand

NOVEMBER 8, 1999: 

Thumbsucker by Walter Kirn (Random House), paper, $14

You can try drugs. You can try fly-fishing. You can even try religion. None of these panaceas will help you to escape your despicable self. Doesn't that cheer you up? Don't despair. This is the 1990s. Pain is in. Feel free to express your suffering to the world.

Everyone is getting into the spirit of our coquettishly bleak times. Walter Kirn has written a tale about one suffering, neurotic middle American family's desperate attempt to stick together. Fortunately, Kirn proves to be an adept writer with a keen sense of humor. Otherwise, this sad story would be too damned nauseating and pathetic. As much as I would love to really lay into the sniveling little novel, I have to admit that I could barely put down this reminiscence about the 1980s. With lines from protagonist Justin Cobb such as, "It used to feel like a hassle to put on underwear, but now I wear it every day," the neurotic angst feels worth enduring.

Aside from his penchant for snide one-liners and his ability to convince adults to replenish his Ritalin prescription, Justin Cobb has very little going for him. He is an adolescent nerd with an oral fixation: he sucks his thumb. To make matters worse, his Reagan-loving, tobacco-chewing dad is a meathead who still worships his college football coach. A nerd, a jock, in one household -- 'nuff said.

Mrs. Cobb feels left out, even though Justin is a Freudian's wet dream, saying of his mother, "To have such a good-looking woman for a mother didn't seem fair to me." So she turns to fantasies of meeting Don Johnson. Justin's younger brother, Joel, rebels when the family goes into a Mormon phase by wearing tight designer jeans and polo shirts with the collars turned up.

Heard enough? Unfortunately, some of Kirn's humor wears off by the latter part of the book, and everything turns pretty sour and repulsive by the end. Thumbsucker is pretty bleak and hard to swallow at that point, but don't let that stop you from indulging yourself.


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