Friday, May 27, 2011

Review of Leverage by Josh Cohen

Leverage by Josh Cohen.  Dutton, 2011.

Kurt Brodsky is recruited as a junior to attend Oregrove High School by Coach Briggs, who hungers for a state football championship. Kurt has grown up in foster care and has had some very bad experiences in his life, not the least of which is molestation by adults. In fact, at his last group home, Mr. Sandborn, aka “Crud Bucket”, was especially horrendous and evil in his abuse, killing Kurt’s friend, Lamar. Kurt escapes from his problems by lifting weights and becoming stronger, with revenge as his ultimate goal. However, he has a kind heart and a gentle soul, but also suffers from severe stuttering. He has a promising future as an offensive fullback.

Sophomore Danny Meehan, is a two-year member of Oregrove’s gymnastic team. He has set lofty goals for himself, hopefully ending in a full-ride college scholarship. Unfortunately, at Oregrove, football is king, and football players rule the school. The three football captains, quarterback Scott Miller, offensive tackle Tom Jankowski, and defensive lineman Mike “Stud” Studblatz, are extremely talented, but they are hyped up on Coach Briggs’s steroids. They terrorize the school, but mainly target the smaller athletes--the gymnastic team, the cross country team, and the swimming team.

Gymnastics coach Ted Nelson, a retired special ops military man, discovers his team budget has been cut by Coach Briggs, who is using the money to put a JumboTron up in the football stadium. Coach Nelson challenges the football players to a strength contest in the school’s weight room, with the winner getting to use the weight room whenever they wish. Much to the football teams’ dismay, they lose to the gymnasts, which sets off a series of pranks between the two teams. The retaliation between the two squads gets more and more out of control, leading to physical abuse and, eventually, a student’s suicide. In an unlikely pairing, Kurt and Danny team up with Tina, also a former foster care child, to expose the football bullies and mete out a kind of justice of their own.

This novel debut by Josh Cohen was a gripping, intense book, one I had to put down at times so I could ponder and absorb what I had read! The characters were extremely well-fleshed out and densely developed. A lot of thought went into their interactions; even the minor characters were complex! The book is told in alternating chapters between the two main characters—Kurt and Danny. I loved Kurt who, at first glance, seemed strong, imposing, and mean, but was actually a gentle giant underneath that hard exterior. Others’ perceptions of his being stupid because he stuttered only added an extra dimension to his likability factor.

Danny, as well, was extremely likable. I admired the way he set his goals to so high. The unlikely friendship that formed between Kurt and Danny was heartfelt and true. It was through Danny’s leadership and encouragement that the entire gymnastics team embraced Kurt’s inclusion in some of their activities.

Tina, the Goth techie girl whom Kurt knew from a previous foster home, was one tough chick. She was a super-hero in disguise! Not only did she know about music, computers and other technology, she was the defender of the weak! I loved how she and her friend, Indira, tried to take on Tom Jankowski in the hallway when he was bullying Danny. She also plays a huge part in the book’s climax.

The three football captains were vile, crude, and rude, and I absolutely hated them. I could not find a single redeeming quality in their personalities. However, at times, their behaviors almost seemed bully-stereotypical. I think that Cohen probably intended his reading audience to loathe the bullies, which was certainly the case, for me, at least.

The action scenes, both for gymnastics and football were extremely descriptive. The ending was awesome, although there is a surprising, unexpected twist! The novel is really about perceptions and expectations, how to overcome adversity, and acceptance of others. Due to the graphic nature of parts of the book I would only recommend it for mature readers, perhaps tenth grade and up. Those who do dive into this book will not be disappointed!