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Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher

July 26, 2010
cover of Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher

Huge improvement over the original (whitewashed) cover. Still don't think he looks like T. J., though.

Sometimes it takes more than one book to figure out what the fuss is about. You know, when you read your first novel in a certain genre or subgenre, or by a particular author, and you enjoyed it, but haven’t been converted into a fan. Then one or two or three books later, you stumble across the book that makes the proverbial lightbulb click on and you finally understand what the big deal is.

I’d read a couple of Chris Crutcher books before and liked them well enough, but (and this may be heresy for a YA librarian) I didn’t think they were all that amazing. Then I read Whale Talk and said, “Oh, so that’s why people are such big Chris Crutcher fans.”

So, Whale Talk.

Cutter High School is obsessed with sports. Which is one of the reasons T. J. Jones sticks out. T. J. (full legal name: The Tao Jones), adopted as a child by white parents, is “black. And Japanese. And white. Politically correct would be African-American, Japanese-American, and what? Northern-European American?” He’s one of the few people of color in town and one of the best athletes in school, even though he refuses to join any of its sports teams.

Sports, to T. J., should be about sportsmanship and competing against an opponent at his best. Not cheering when an opponent gets hurt or an obsession with letter jackets, like it is in Cutter. He’s also got a problem with authority figures telling him what to do, another reason why T. J. doesn’t want to play football or basketball, despite the avid pursuit of the coaches.

When one T. J.’s teachers, mostly in an effort to avoid being an assistant coach on the wrestling team, proposes starting a swim team, T. J. is therefore reluctant to participate at first. Until he realizes putting together a team consisting of people who “would look most out of place in a Cutter High School letter jacket” (namely, “one swimmer of color, a representative from each extreme of the educational spectrum, a muscle man, a giant, a chameleon, and a psychopath”) would be an excellent way of pissing off those people whose lives seem to revolve around said Cutter High School letter jackets.

Over the course of the year, a camaraderie develops among the swimmers. As T. J. battles for all swim team members to receive letter jackets, he confronts coaches, student-athletes, and one particular racist and abusive Cutter High alumnus who don’t want to change the status quo. Yet despite the (often unsubtle) messages and sometimes painful incidents T. J. encounters, the story does not feel didactic or heavy. The way Crutcher balances his storylines, T. J.’s relationship with his father, and, most notably, the angst vs. humor level, make Whale Talk an unexpectedly enjoyable read.

Part of what I liked best about Whale Talk is how it’s about racism, but not really *about* race. I know, this needs clarification. What I’m trying to say is that 1) while racism is an important part of the story, it’s not the only thing that’s going on; and 2) it does not provide internal conflict, but external conflict. T. J. doesn’t have a problem being mixed-race; he is who he is. Although some people have a problem with it, T. J. doesn’t allow it to define him or for others to use it as a way of denigrating him.

Book source: public library.

Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. July 26, 2010 4:22 am

    Yeah, not all of Crutchers books hit me as hard as they seem to hit others — I think reading him when I was eighteen is a lot different from now, and I see the heavy-handedness and the sort of hard-headed authorial insistence on The World According To How I See It, which is usually something someone in a writing group would get called on. Yet, I love his work, and the fact that he was, for a long while, the lone voice in writing in his particular style. Whale Talk was a tough one – I’d be interested in your opinion on the rest of his books.

  2. Allik permalink
    July 26, 2010 5:52 am

    In addition to “Whale Talk” the Crutcher book that really spoke to me is “Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.” Have you read that one?

  3. July 26, 2010 6:51 am

    Must get to WHALE TALK. I love STAYING FAT FOR SARAH BYRNES.

  4. July 26, 2010 11:20 am

    I’m also not a huge Crutcher fan, but this book. This book is really, really good. I haven’t read Staying Fat, so maybe I should pick that one up too.

  5. July 26, 2010 12:59 pm

    Allik and Angie – Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes was actually the first Chris Crutcher book I read, back in library school. I thought it was a good book, liked it okay, but not enough to really seek out Crutcher’s other books. I read Deadline for the Cybils — not as good as Sarah Byrnes but liked it okay. Whale Talk, while I’m not sure it’s turned me into a huge fan, I think I do now understand why many people are such fans of his work. And, Angie, I’d love to see your thoughts on Whale Talk once you’ve read it.

    Tanita and Patti – hey, glad to know I’m not the only one who feels that way! I think this one worked for me more than Sarah Byrnes and Deadline (and Crutcher’s memoir, which I didn’t finish reading because I got bored) because of the balance I mentioned. Yeah, there’s a message, but it didn’t seem as heavyhanded. And it was a lot funnier than what I recall of the other two books I read. Plus, T. J. He’s awesome!

  6. July 29, 2010 2:16 am

    I am one of those fans of Crutcher. I cam to him many years ago after reading Crazy Horse Electric game and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. I have not red Whale Talk, so after reading your review I will definitely be looking to do so. Thanks

  7. October 3, 2010 4:02 am

    I’m working off my memory of reading Whale Tale like 5 years ago, but I like how you bring up that “it’s about racism, but not really *about* race.” I like this observation, sure T.J. has to face racism, but his teammates all have forms of prejudice and bullying to face too which felt a little more in context for me. Racism doesn’t exist in a prejudice vacuum, and this book features that.

    • October 4, 2010 9:23 pm

      Thanks, Caitlin, but I think you articulate this much better than I did… :)

  8. MTD permalink
    February 27, 2011 2:23 pm

    The cover does not look like T.J., though. Even though the book is great, it says that he stood out at his all-white school and attempted to wash away his dark skin. The skin isn’t that dark and he wouldn’t stand out that much amongst a Caucasian crowd.

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