TEENAGER by Bud Smith

by Bud Smith
Vintage, 2022
400 Pages
Reviewed by Nick Sweeney

Much like the novel reviewed here—I will cut right to the chase. Teenager is electric. It is damaging and dangerous and stunning. This fast-moving novel will shock you on every page, sometimes once, and sometimes for sentences or paragraphs or pages at a time like a barrage of haymakers. Terrence Malick’s Badlands comes to mind, if Badlands decided to start and end its journey at a hundred miles per hour with little regard to what stood in the way. What you learn early from Teenager, though, is the journey isn’t about where you’re going—it’s who you’re with. This is, and has always been, Bud Smith’s calling card. His characters are real and reckless and entirely human, his stories clashing between internal optimism and external cynicism.

Bud Smith’s latest novel starts with an escape. Then a double murder. Then a road trip across the remnants of the American Dream. There is no setting the stage. No preparation. Action happens and readers are simply told to hold on for dear life. Kody and Teal, both at the invincible age of seventeen, travel through a country that exists only in Kody’s imagination. From the scenic New Jersey Pine Barrens, to the kingdom of Graceland, to a ranch in Montana and then the Grand Canyon, they continue to hold each other up as their journey lets them down—even as their crime spree spirals past the point of no return; even as Teal’s older brother Neil chases them across the country like a bounty hunter in one of those old westerns.

Kody’s vision of America, of what it could be and what it once was, is as significant a love story as the one he has with Teal. He is destined to be a dreaming journeyman: “Always buried in some paperback. Shakespeare or Louis L’Amour; oaths of love-revenge, riding off into the sunset, sagebrush and tumbleweeds. He admired Don Quixote, who’d gone nuts and bravely changed careers from hidalgo to knight-errant and set off to save the world. Kody renamed his moped Rocinante in tribute.” All dreams end when you wake up, and it’s heartbreaking in all the worse ways. His romanticism, not for a specific time in history, but the fleeting feeling of hope and opportunity, is tested time and time again. Graceland, the kingdom of Elvis Presley, is largely underwhelming. His stay at Carson Ranch, while extraordinary and memorable, is not what he envisioned. The American Dream ended and didn’t bother to tell anyone outright. And this leaks over into the vision of his relationship with Teal. Kody’s vision of eternity is given a clock that is quickly running out—and he spends the latter half of the book trying to keep the rush going for just a little bit longer. There’s a love here that’s bound for destruction. There is simply no other way—and yet.

Smith knows when to pull off the gas, allowing both Kody and Teal—but also the reader—time to breathe as the road trip heads to its eventual conclusion. He keeps the engine of this story alive just long enough to devastate us. His attention to craft is evident throughout, not just in his mastery of pace. Kody’s love for Teal is otherworldly and this is visible early on: “I wish my guts glowed in the dark so if you looked down my mouth you could see my heart even if the night was starless.” Teal simply replies: “I want to go home.” Smith can push and pull the reader in every possible direction within just a few lines—and in a few words. Teal is Kody’s anchor, allowing him to drift off just enough. But it’s clear that she’s on a journey that’s altogether different and more internal and this road trip is just one leg of a longer marathon.

Young love, for time and place but also for another, is messy and dangerous. It knows no bounds, there are no guard rails for protection. Bud Smith’s Teenager is about what happens when the unstoppable force of love meets the immovable object of reality. It’s about the damage we can withstand.