Blake Nelson's ability to crawl inside the head of his teenaged protagonists... well, it borders on the creepy. His 1994 novel Girl, about a burgeoning alterna-teen growing up in a suburb of Portland, resembles a better-written version of my high school journal—and now, in his new novel Destroy All Cars, Nelson creates an utterly credible contemporary iteration of an angry young man.
Seventeen-year-old James Hoff is beyond angry, in fact: He's righteous, defiantly positioning himself outside of the "car culture" that's so obviously destroying the planet. Told via journal entries and school essays, Destroy All Cars documents James' intellectual, emotional, and sexual experiences in his 17th year, as he graduates from bombastic idealism to a more thoughtful approach. His voice is perfect, teetering between befuddlement and self-awareness as he susses out the parameters of his own identity: "The fact that Lucy Branch might like me indicates to me that my look is not representing my true personality," he writes at one point. A more perfectly teenaged line was never written.
While the manner in which James expresses his ideas—hyperbolic, strident manifestos submitted to his AP English teacher—is kind of over-inflated and silly, the ideas themselves are sound. James grows into a more considered idealism, but he doesn't abandon a single one of his convictions. It's a strong and well-couched message: Growing up doesn't mean you have to stop believing in things.