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Nanette O’Hare is an unassuming teen who has played the role of dutiful daughter, hardworking student, and star athlete for as long as she can remember. But when a beloved teacher gives her his worn copy of The Bubblegum Reaper–a mysterious, out-of-print cult classic–the rebel within Nanette awakens.
As she befriends the reclusive author, falls in love with a young but troubled poet, and attempts to insert her true self into the world with wild abandon, Nanette learns the hard way that rebellion sometimes comes at a high price.
A celebration of the self and the formidable power of story, Every Exquisite Thing is Matthew Quick at his finest.
Table of Contents
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He Was an Adult and I Was Still a Kid
The last lunch period before Christmas break junior year, when I arrived at Mr. Graves's classroom, he was full of holiday cheer and smiling much more than usual. We had been eating alone together for months. But for that day, his wife had baked me a plate of Italian pizzelle cookies, which made me wonder what Mr. Graves had been telling her about me. The cookies looked like giant snowflakes and tasted like black licorice. We each had one, and then Mr. Graves handed me a small box wrapped in blue paper dotted with the white silhouettes of reindeer equipped with enormous antlers. I had never received a present from a teacher before. It seemed significant.
"Just a little something from one cafeteria avoider to another," he said, and smiled.
I tore into the wrapping paper.
Inside was a paperback novel called The Bubblegum Reaper, written by Nigel Booker. The cover was taped to the spine, and the pages had yellowed. It smelled like an old camping tent that had remained slightly damp for fifty years. On the white front was one of those long Grim Reaper scythes with the curved blade at the top, only it was made entirely of rainbow-colored gumballs—like someone had arranged them that way on white marble. The image was certainly weird. It both frightened and lured.
I opened the book to the first page.
The dedication read "For the archery pit."
Bizarre, I thought.
I quickly flipped through the dog-eared pages and saw that someone had underlined hundreds of passages throughout.
"I read that book when I was your age, and it changed my life," Mr. Graves said. "It's out of print. Probably worth some money, but it's just not the type of book you sell. I scanned the entire thing and made a digital file a long time ago. And I promised myself that I'd pass my copy on to the right student whenever he or she came along. It's maybe not the most literary work in the world. Probably a bit dated. But it's a cult classic and I have a feeling that it might be the perfect read for you. Maybe even a rite of passage for people like us. Anyway, Merry Christmas, Nanette O'Hare."
When I gave Mr. Graves a thank-you hug, he stiffened and said, "No need for all that." Then he laughed nervously as he gently pushed me away.
His doing that made me angry at the time, but later I sort of got why he was being cautious. He saw what was coming before I did, because he was an adult and I was still a kid.
I began reading that night.
Like the Story Wasn't Finished
The Bubblegum Reaper is about a boy who identifies himself as Wrigley because he's addicted to Wrigley's Doublemint chewing gum. He says it calms his nerves, and he chews so furiously (and often) that he frequently gets jaw aches and even "the occasional bout of lockjaw." He never tells you his real name as you follow him through a year of high school.
Wrigley mostly observes his classmates, whose company he doesn't enjoy, and talks about "quitting" all the time, only you really don't know what he wants to "quit." I Googled the book and there are theories online—whole websites dedicated to answering the question. Some people think Wrigley wants to kill himself, thereby quitting the human race. Some believe he simply wants to drop out of school. Some people think Wrigley's talking about God and really wants to quit believing in a higher power, which I'm not sure I get, because the narrator doesn't mention God even once. There are others who theorize that Wrigley wants to quit America and that the whole book is about communism, but again, I'm not sure I believe that, either.
The problem is that Wrigley falls in love with one of two identical twin sisters named Lena and Stella Thatch, only he doesn't know which he loves. It happens because one of them likes to talk to this turtle that suns itself on a rock sticking out of the creek near the high school they attend. Wrigley names this turtle Unproductive Ted because it just sits on the rock all day long doing nothing but soaking up the sun. (I love that nickname so much: Unproductive Ted.) From behind an oak tree, Wrigley eavesdrops on the twin talking to Unproductive Ted about all her fears and worries and about something awful her father had done, but you never quite know for sure what that is. What's certain is that this girl is on the verge of tears the whole time. Wrigley listens patiently to everything the girl needs to get out, and then once he shows himself and she realizes he's heard everything, Wrigley immediately tries to comfort the twin by saying, "What you just said. All of it. I understand. I really do. I think the same thoughts—well, most of them—too." She's mad at first about "the spying," but then she and Wrigley have this amazing talk about life and their school and how they can't be honest "outside the woods" and about "just quitting."
The tragedy manifests when Wrigley leaves her. On his way home, much to his horror, he realizes he didn't ask for a name and therefore doesn't know if he had this really intimate experience with Stella Thatch or Lena Thatch, which induces a crippling and nauseating anxiety attack—he actually pukes—because the twin kept saying over and over, "Please don't tell my sister about this. Please!" He realizes that he can't ask one of the twins if it was her by the creek without risking betraying her confidence, because if he asks the wrong twin, it would "ruin everything." It's obvious that he can't get out of his own way, but you feel really sorry for him anyway because in his mind it is an unsolvable problem that tortures him.
He spends months trying to figure out exactly which twin he spoke with and waiting for her to say something to him in school and worrying that maybe she's waiting for him to make the first move, and he's also worrying even more that she regrets their private conversation in the woods and never wishes to speak with Wrigley again.
Finally, after months of watching the two twins in the lunchroom, he decides that Lena is his twin, mostly because she sometimes taps her foot nervously when she speaks at the table full of popular girls, but he's not exactly sure. Furthermore, Lena has begun carrying a handbag with an L stitched into it, which also seems like a very good sign. Maybe she's sending him a signal about her identity, clueing him in, he thinks.
Wrigley decides to ask Lena to the prom, telling himself that if she says yes, he will know for sure that she was the one who confessed to Unproductive Ted. She does say yes but seems unenthusiastic about the proposal, which confuses him even more.
Wrigley rents a tuxedo and buys a yellow rose wrist corsage, and yet, just before he rings the doorbell at the twins' home, he realizes that the twin he met in the woods would never want to go to the prom—he knows this because he doesn't really want to go to the prom, either, and is only in a tuxedo to find out if he has the right sister. He couldn't care less about any of the rest, or what he calls "pageantry." The twin who talks to a turtle all alone by the creek would not love the Wrigley who attends the prom, because he is in a costume and is not being true to who he really is—the "plainly clothed Wrigley in the woods." It's so obvious, he thinks, and I agree. He cannot attend the prom. It would ruin any chance he had of a true relationship with the right twin.
Wrigley decides that he has failed before he has even begun, and so he doesn't ring the doorbell but goes to the spot where he and the twin first spoke, thinking that the real sister might be there waiting and maybe they'd talk and end up kissing like at the end of a modern fairy tale. Instead, he finds a bunch of elementary school kids using sticks to spin Unproductive Ted around on the back of his shell, "his four legs cutting a cruel circle in the air, as if he were a turtle top." Wrigley flies into a rage, grabs the biggest of the kids, and screams "WHY? WHY? WHY?" over and over again.
The elementary-school-kid ringleader says he was only having a little fun and they weren't going to actually kill the turtle, so Wrigley sticks his gum in the kid's hair, throws him into the creek, and says, "I'm only having a little fun, too, but I won't actually hold you underwater until you turn blue and drown." Then he holds the kid's head underwater until his friends start to plead for their buddy's life, begging Wrigley to let him breathe again. When the half-drowned kid resurfaces soaking wet, he gasps and begs not to be held underwater again. Wrigley lets him go, and the kids run away.
Unproductive Ted bites Wrigley's hand and removes a triangle of skin when our hero sets the turtle upright.
As Unproductive Ted makes his escape, Wrigley bleeds and drip-dries and curses and waits for the right twin to show up, but she never does.
The parents of the kid he almost drowned arrive instead, and the father throws Wrigley into the creek and starts kicking water up into Wrigley's face, saying, "How do you like being a bully now? My son is eleven years old and half your size. You're a scumbag. A complete and utter embarrassment to the community. Why aren't you at the prom, anyway? You already have the tuxedo on! It's un-American to skip the prom. Are you a pinko communist?"
Rather than explain himself, Wrigley strips out of his prom costume, swims into the middle of the polluted creek, where he knows "no one will follow," floats naked on his back, and says, "Now I understand, Unproductive Ted, why you sit alone on the rock all day long doing nothing. I quit. I'm just going to float here forever and ever and ever." And then the novel ends with Wrigley laughing maniacally as the stars begin to pop through the night sky above.
On the Internet, there are different theories about the ending, but the predominant thought is that Wrigley is rejecting conventional society—family, government-run school, even his sexuality—to just be in that moment, floating unclothed in the creek.
Some say it's a lesson in Zen Buddhism and that Wrigley maybe even experiences enlightenment.
It felt like the story wasn't finished, which upset me because I wanted to know what happened to Wrigley after he got out of the water. I even reread the book three times over Christmas break thinking I had missed something.
You've Got to Meet Him Yourself
When school started up again in January, I was waiting in the hallway with my back against Mr. Graves's classroom door.
"Did you sleep here last night, Nanette? The sun isn't even up yet," he joked when he arrived.
"What happens to Wrigley?" I asked. "I have to know. Because Wrigley is me. And it just can't end like that. It. Just. Can't."
"Because I need more."
"Always leave them wanting more. That's one of the great rules of show business."
"This isn't show business. This is literature. And it's my life, too," I said. "This book is me. Me. It's so much more than a story. The author has a responsibility to provide answers. All the answers!"
Mr. Graves smiled, laughed, and said, "I thought you would like The Bubblegum Reaper. Like I said—a rite of passage for weirdos like us."
Mr. Graves was always using the word weirdo to describe himself and people he liked. He said that all the great writers were "weirdos," too—that our best artists, musicians, and thinkers were first labeled weird in high school or "when they were young." That was "the price of admission."
"Why is it called The Bubblegum Reaper, anyway?" I said.
"Why do you think?"
"I have no idea. That's why I'm asking you!"
He laughed. "Well, there are many theories."
"I did an Internet search already. I'm not buying what's out there."
"Then maybe you should ask the author yourself."
"How can I do that?"
"Mr. Booker actually lives within walking distance of this school. Did you know that?"
"Are you even serious?"
Mr. Graves smiled like he had been leading me down a path without my knowing it. "And I hear that if you offer to buy him a cup of coffee at the House, he'll speak with you. Although I should warn you that he never, ever gives a straight answer. And I think he actually hates The Bubblegum Reaper now."
"How do you know that?"
"Because I wrote him many letters when I was a teenager, until he finally met with the sixteen-year-old me."
"What did he say?"
"Oh, I'm not going to spoil it for you. You've got to meet him yourself. It's definitely an experience. One that I'm pretty sure I can arrange for you. That is—if you're game."
A Hymn to the Noble Art of Quitting
I was most definitely game.
Mr. Graves made the arrangements, and I soon found myself sitting down across from Nigel Booker, the author of my new favorite book. The House is the local coffee place, and it's only about six blocks from my actual domicile. You'll find mostly older people in there, which doesn't bother me one bit, because I'm not all that fond of my generation, truth be told.
"Ms. O'Hare?" he said when he arrived. When I nodded, he extended his hand. I shook it, and he said, "Call me Booker. I'm not a mister type." He was older than Mr. Graves by a few decades. Tufts of white hair sprouted from his gigantic ears. Plaid pants that were too short at the bottom and too baggy around the waist. His oversize cable-knit wool sweater was worn and a bit dirty. And he had hair slicked back on the sides and poufed up at the top like Elvis—only gray. "You really want to buy this old man coffee?" he said, pointing his thumbs back at his face. "How did I get so lucky?"
I nodded, and then we ordered and I paid, and we sat down.
"So?" he said.
I took a deep breath and said, "The Bubblegum Reaper is my new personal manifesto. I didn't know that there were other people like me, but there obviously are. And you get it, too. Which is why—"
"Okay," he said, and then chuckled. "That's enough of that."
I couldn't tell if he was just being modest, so I pressed on with my questions. "Why isn't it in print anymore?"
"Probably because it isn't very good," he said, and then laughed. "I didn't have any formal training as a fiction writer. I just had this story in my head and I had to get it out. It was like I had a fever one summer and the writing was the medicine. I couldn't believe it got published, and I have no idea why I sent it to New York in the first place. Probably a double case of temporary insanity—me and the obscure publisher, which went out of business shortly after the book came out. Go figure. They only had time to do one moderate-sized paperback print run. Thank God."
I had no idea what he was talking about, so I stuck to the questions I had prepared ahead of time. "Is it true that you buy all the used copies off the Internet and burn them?"
He laughed and said, "I don't even have an Internet in my home."
The way he said "an Internet" made me believe he was telling the truth. You can always tell when an old person has no idea what you are talking about, because they mess up the wording almost as if they're trying to defeat the thing you are discussing by refusing to name it correctly. I call this technique senior-citizen word voodoo.
I went to my third question, saying, "What happens to Wrigley after he gets out of the creek?"
"Who says he ever gets out?"
"So he drowns?"
"We can't know for sure."
"The story ends."
"But you could write more."
"No, I can't. There's no more to write."
"Just the way it is. The story ends where it ends."
"I don't understand."
"See that nice woman who served us our coffee?"
I looked back over my shoulder at the tall cashier with the brown ponytail and the permanent smile on her face, and I nodded.
"Her name is Ruth," Booker said. "Ever see her before?"
Kids my age never came into this coffee shop, so I said, "No."
"Maybe you won't ever see her again."
"You only got to see five minutes of Ruth's story. And that's just the way it is. But Ruth, well, she goes on now whether you're looking or not. She does all sorts of things that some people see and some don't. But your version of Ruth's story will be the five minutes you spent buying coffee from her. That's just the way it is."
"All right," I said. "But what does that have to do with The Bubblegum Reaper? Ruth is real. Wrigley's a fictional character."
"There are no such things as fictional characters."
He sipped his coffee, smirked, and said, "I wrote that book a long time ago. Before you were even born. It's hard to remember what I was thinking back then. I can hardly remember what I was thinking this morning. You seem like an intelligent young person. You don't need me to explain anything to you."
My head was spinning, so I went back to my prepared list of questions. "What did you mean when you said Wrigley wanted to quit? In the book. He kept saying he wanted to quit. Quit what?"
He raised his eyebrows and said, "Don't you ever feel like you want to quit doing something everyone else makes you feel like you're supposed to keep doing? Didn't you ever just simply want to… stop?"
"I don't know, I mean, I guess so," I told him, even though I knew exactly what he meant.
A silence hung between us—like when you suddenly notice the dust motes dancing all around you in the late-afternoon sun and you wonder how the hell you didn't notice them before.
"Why don't we talk less about my failed attempt to be a novelist and more about you?" he finally said. "Are you a happy person?"
I'm not sure anyone had ever bothered to ask me that before, so I said "What do you mean?" to buy time and think of a clever answer.
I mean—when was the last time someone asked if you were happy and then looked you in the eyes in a way that made you feel as though they actually gave a shit about your response?
"Do you enjoy all that you are participating in?" he said.
"Like—do I want to quit anything?"
"It's not a crime to admit such things. The Participation Gestapo isn't hiding behind that plant over there. No Participation KGB, either. This is America. You are free to utilize freedom of speech—freedom, period. And I already know you want to quit something or you wouldn't be so interested in my stupid little book, which is—at the end of the day, if I remember correctly—a hymn to the noble art of quitting. So let's have it. What do you want to quit more than anything else in the world?"
"Soccer," I said, surprising myself, although it was absolutely true. I'd hated soccer for a long time.
"Soccer. Okay. Now we're getting somewhere. Next question: Why?"
"I don't know."
"Oh, I bet you do. Are you on the school team?"
I looked down at the counter, noticed the white grains of sugar scattered around the table. "I'm the captain and leading scorer."
"So you're good at it?"
"Sort of," I said, even though I made the All–South Jersey Team as a sophomore, colleges were recruiting me, and scouts came to my games. But I didn't really care about any of that. The attention was embarrassing. Made me feel like even more of a fraud.
"I bet no one ever told you this truth before, so here it is for the price of a cup of coffee." He took a sip and then stared into my eyes before saying, "Just because you're good at something doesn't mean you have to do it."
We locked eyes for a second.
He smiled like he was giving me the secret to life.
Try telling that to my coach and my father, I thought. I shook my head and then said, "I wanted to kill those little kids who were spinning around Unproductive Ted. And then I wanted to kill the kid's dad, who throws Wrigley into the creek. And I'm not a violent person at all. I won't even let my mom set mousetraps. Never been carded in my entire soccer career. No reds. No yellows. I've never wanted to kill anything before. Not even a weed or a spider. But you made me feel such intense feelings. The ending of your book made me so incredibly angry."
Booker smirked in this awfully sad way and then looked out the window at nothing in particular. "Oh, please don't blame me for your hatred. It was there before you cracked open my Bubblegum book. I can assure you of that. It's in all of us. We at least need to take responsibility for our own share—especially whatever we let leak out."
"I'm not trying to…" I said, but then stopped because I realized I was.
"You should read Bukowski's 'The Genius of the Crowd,'" he said, reestablishing eye contact. "That poem has a thing or two to say about hatred."
"The great Charles Bukowski. Hero of nonconformists and blue-collar poets the world over."
My family certainly wasn't blue-collar, but I liked the sound of nonconformist.
I asked him how to spell the last name and typed the letters into my phone. Then I typed The Genius of the Crowd in, too, which I later read and loved. Reading that poem was like putting on the proper prescription glasses after bumping into walls for my entire life. Bukowski was able to sum up precisely what I had been feeling for many years, and he made it look so easy on the page.
"Be careful with the Buk's poems," Booker said that day in the coffee shop. "Powerful stuff. And please—whatever you do—don't tell your parents I told you to read counterculture poetry, especially if they're uptight types who send out family portraits as Christmas cards. Definitely don't say a word about the Buk if they make you coordinate holiday outfits. Even non-Christmas-card-sending suburban parents tend to despise Charles Bukowski, which, of course, is why so many suburban kids love him."
"How did you know they do that?" I asked, astonished. "My parents. The Christmas cards. Coordinating holiday outfits."
"Far too often, people are woefully predictable. And I know many things. It's a curse. Here's something else I know: You are not doomed to be your parents. You can break the cycle. You can be whoever you want to be. But you will pay a price. Your parents and everyone else will punish you if you choose to be you and not them. That's the price of your freedom. The cage is unlocked, but everyone is too scared to walk out because they whack you when you try, and they whack you hard. They want you to be scared, too. They want you to stay in the cage. But once you are a few steps beyond the trapdoor, they can't reach you anymore, so the whacking stops. That's another secret: They're too afraid to follow. They adore their own cages."
I opened my mouth to defend my parents because they really are good people, and I didn't want him to believe that they whacked me, even metaphorically, but for some reason, no words came out of my mouth. The afternoon had gotten intense much too quickly.
"You seem like a weird, lonely girl, Nanette O'Hare. I'm a weird, lonely old man. Weird, lonely people need each other. So let's just cut to the chase." He smiled and took another sip of his coffee. Then he said the seven words that would change my life forever. "Would you like to be my friend?"
I nodded a bit too eagerly and was shocked to feel myself welling up.
"Well, I never under any set of circumstances whatsoever discuss The Bubblegum Reaper with my friends. So once we make it official, that's it. We never talk about Wrigley or Unproductive Ted or the Thatch twins or any of it ever again. Understood?"
I had one more question prepared—and maybe to stop myself from crying, I asked, "Before I become your friend, then—on the Internet, I read that several publishing companies have offered to rerelease the book and you turned them all down. Is that true?"
"Because I own the copyright and can do whatever the hell I want with it. I chose to quit publishing. I made that decision a long time ago. Publishing The Bubblegum Reaper was the biggest mistake of my life."
"You want to quit—like Wrigley?"
"Yes! So can we end all this literary talk and simply be friends already? True friends are better than novels! Better than Shakespeare plays! Any hour of the day! Fake friends, on the other hand—well, I'd rather smash open my skull with a solid-gold Bible than endure the slow poison of a fake friend!" When a few other patrons looked over at us, Booker thumbed his nose at them and then smiled at me.
I laughed. "Is this just a way for you to get me to stop asking questions about your book?"
"No, it's a way to move beyond the book. The book's there—stagnant. It never changes. We evolve as people. I'm not the same man who wrote that book twenty-some years ago. And you won't be the same girl in love with Wrigley forever."
I blushed because he was right about one thing: I absolutely was in love with Wrigley. I'd even begun hanging around the pond in our town where turtles sun in the summer because I was secretly hoping that Wrigley would magically show up—like I could think him into existence, as we do when we read fiction. I felt my cheeks burn and changed the subject by saying, "So why did you agree to meet me today? If you hate talking about your book so much?"
"I love free coffee in real cups and saucers," he said without missing a beat. "Buy me a cup of black and I will meet you every single week forever and ever."
I smiled and pushed a strand of hair behind my ear. "What happens when we become friends?"
"No way to tell now. I think we just have to give it a try and find out. There are no guarantees when it comes to such treacherous things as friendship. It's a tricky business."
"You were Mr. Graves's friend when he was my age, right?"
"We corresponded. Yes."
Mr. Graves was one of the few adults I admired. I wanted to do whatever helped make him the person he turned out to be.
"Okay," I said. "We're friends now."
"Every Exquisite Thing lives up to the hype...You're going to wish you could follow Quick's awesome heroine Nanette for another 500 pages or so when you get to the end."—Bustle.com
* "The author's beautifully written first-person narrative captures the thoughts and feelings of a sensitive eighteen-year-old girl struggling against the shallowness she sees around her....All of the elements of this novel work together to make this an outstanding coming-of-age story."—VOYA, starred review
* "Quick continues to excel at writing thought-provoking stories about nonconformity.... [and] paints a compelling portrait of a sympathetic teenager going through the trial-and-error process of growing up."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
* "Like the many anticonformity books before it, this will find a dedicated audience among teen readers."—School Library Journal, starred review
"Quick's story will speak to teenage eccentrics: loners, rebels, and creative types; the kind to follow Booker's suggestions to read Bukowski and Neruda; those ripe for transformation."—Horn Book
"A strong, well-written female protagonist sets this coming-of-age novel apart."—Kirkus Reviews
"Quick creates beautifully well-rounded characters, particularly Nanette, whose first-person narrative, rich with wry observations and a kaleidoscope of meaningful emotions, offers great insight into the mind of a teen on a sometimes sluggish, spiraling path toward sorting herself out."—Booklist
"[Quick] will give readers lots to chew on as they join Nanette in sorting out angst from general privileged malaise."—The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
- On Sale
- May 31, 2016
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers