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The Last Exit to Normal by Michael Harmon

The Last Exit to Normal

by Michael Harmon

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Three years ago, Ben Campbell’s was as normal as could be. Then his dad suddenly announced he was gay. Now Ben has no mother, she walked out the door and never looked back. He’s doing every drug he can get his hands on. Then a year ago Ben cleaned himself up. For almost an entire year he hasn’t gotten into trouble, he’s done well in school, and he’s sort of civil with everyone. But then he goes and gets arrested and that’s that. His dad, and his “Momdad” Edward, take Ben and move him to the middle of nowhere, Rough Butte, Montana, population 400, to live with Edward’s mother Miss Mae.

So now, at the age of 17, Ben finds himself starting over all over again. Now the city boy has to learn to live in the backward country of Montana, where everyone drives huge trucks, wear Wrangler’s and Ropers, and works. Really works. But the hardest part is to come for now he has to deal with the creepy guy next door, big brother’s looking to scare the potential boyfriend away and a grandmother who isn’t afraid to whack him with a spoon at the first opportunity.

"The decoder card to the universe wasn’t included in the box of cereal God gave humanity. At the ripe old age of seventeen, I’d at least figured out that no matter how hard you try to guess what happens next, you can’t. Life wasn’t set up that way and we don’t like it, so we spend most of our time running around like a bunch of dimwits."

The best part of The Last Exit to Nowhere is Ben. Ben’s voice is spot on ‘teenager.’ He’s angry, sarcastic, challenging, very intelligent, honest, brash, stubborn, romantic, awkward, comical, depressed, and funny, and like most teenagers he shifts from one emotion to the next with surprising speed. Ben’s relationship with his dad was the best drawn plot of the book. It felt real and complex. The problems the two had, Ben accepting his father’s homosexuality, his father’s desire for that acceptance, but unwillingness to deal with it himself spoke true to me.

Harmon pulled no punches with this coming-of-age story. It actually left me in tears a couple of times. This story of a misfit boy who is struggling to fix all the lives around him while trying to figure out his own is powerful and a must read. Don’t miss it.
( )
  capriciousreader | Dec 20, 2013 |
There is just enough humor to keep this tale of teenage angst from being maudlin. Ben's life has been on a downward spiral since his dad's announcement that he was gay and Ben's mom leaves them both. Ben, his dad and Edward (his MomDad) move back to Montana where Edward grew up and Ben learns much about life and responsibilities from a wide array of well-defined charachers ( )
  lindap69 | Apr 5, 2013 |
15 May 2008 THE LAST EXIT TO NORMAL by Michael Harmon, Knopf, March 2008, 273p., ISBN: 0-375-84098-2; Libr. ISBN: 0-375-94098-7

"Miss Mae was like an old record, all scratchy and rough but still functional. She'd skin you, strap you, eat your liver, take you by the ears and beat some sense into your head. I'd been hit with a wooden spoon more times last week than I liked to think about, and even though the thought of getting slapped in the face burned hot, there was something about her that I sort of liked. She was a rebel herself."

Three years ago punk skater and city boy Ben Campbell had his life turned upside down when his father came home, came out, and Ben's mother reacted to the news by promptly moving out of their lives. Ben has since spent significant time rebelling. Fortunately, he's survived in one piece, but the last straw -- as far as his two dads were concerned -- was a car crash that followed a police chase.

Ben's dad and "momdad," Edward, have now decided to move with Ben from Spokane, Washington to the house, the mother (Miss Mae), and the little Montana community that Edward had left behind twenty years previously:

"Rough Butte, population four hundred and sixty-three not counting several dozen chickens roaming the streets, had a stagnant creek running through it, a bunch of small stores, and huge oak and maple trees growing everywhere. A town-square park with a wishing well and a bridge over the creek sat in the middle of everything.

"If I were one to admire quaint small-town life, with its clean streets, old-fashioned sidewalk lampposts and all the trimmings, Rough Butte might be cool, but I'm not one to appreciate anything without a grind rail on it. I couldn't find a decent one in the whole rotten place. But I did find the sheriff. Actually, he found me."

While Edward comes face-to-face with the community his mother sent him away from all those years ago (for his own good), Ben is getting his own dose of Miss Mae and the colorful assemblage of characters who hail from Rough Butte. This cast includes fellow teen, Kimberly Johan -- for whom Ben falls at first sight -- as well as Miss Mae's horrific next-door neighbor Norman Hinks, and Hinks' troubled and chronically-abused young son, Billy:

"Billy straightened, a broken brick in his hand, his sweaty face contorted. I couldn't tell if there were tears in his eyes or if it was just sweat. '"Sorry' don't cut it around here, faggot. My dad's right. You prob'ly just want to put it in me, like he says.'

"I'd dealt with stuff before, but never in my face like this. 'Whoa. Not even, man. And your dad is an asshole for even saying it.'

"Billy's eyes swept to the cat slinking along the fence. He walked a few steps to the back door, opened it, then reached inside. He brought out a rifle.

"My stomach fell to my feet, images of being blown away by a ten-year-old boy flashing through my head.

"'Hey, man, put that away.'

"He looked at me like I was the biggest dork in the world, levered a round into the rifle, took aim, and shot the cat. It jumped, then crumpled to the ground. The shot echoed, but it wasn't that loud. Not like I expected it to be."

As Ben gradually -- for better or for worse -- becomes a part of his new community, he struggles to maintain a relationship with his father, to begin one with Kimberly, and to devise a way to help Billy.

I was not surprised to learn from an article posted on the author's website that Harmon has been mentored by Chris Crutcher. Akin to a 21st Century band dropping musical hints of their Sixties or Eighties influences while performing, THE LAST EXIT TO NORMAL often riffs like old-school Crutcher. This means LAST EXIT is a primo, straight-talking, oft-profane, and consistently fulfilling 100% genuine guy read that propelled me in short order from cover to cover.

"I smiled. 'See? Watch.' I flipped the board down on the porch and jumped down the stairs, landing it perfect.

"Her brow furrowed. 'Do that again.'


"'Don't you question me!' she barked, then gestured with a saggy arm for me to do it again. I did, landing it like I did the first time. She nodded, then shooed me away. 'Get on out of here, and stay out of trouble.'

"I nodded, skating down the walk. 'Bye.'

"She called to me, her firecracker voice snapping over the street: 'You be late for supper and I'll skin your behind!'"

Purchasing a copy or two of THE LAST EXIT TO NORMAL will be an excellent investment for those serving high school students.

Richie Partington, MLIS

Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com

Moderator, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/


http://www.myspace.com/richiespicks ( )
1 vote richiespicks | Jul 9, 2011 |
Plot: A few years ago Logan’s father came out of the closet and it blew their family apart. Logan’s mother took off and Logan had to live with the embarrassment of having a gay dad. So he starts acting out, getting in trouble. Logan is now 17 and his dad, at a loss moves them all to his boyfriend’s tiny, rural hometown. Logan’s dad hopes to straighten him out but Logan is more worried about the neighbor’s kid. His mother has also run off and Logan suspects that he is being abused.

This book disappointed me a bit. The plot and the writing was fine (an easy read even for reluctant readers) but I picked up some messages that I found distinctly disturbing.

For one, Logan calls his father some pretty nasty things (fag among them) and is not very accepting of the fact that he is gay. I could accept this in the name of realism. Would your average teenage boy be cool with his dad being gay? No. And having worked with teens, I know they can swing around offensive terms quite casually. The problem is rather how this is dealt with in the narrative. Logan’s dad is selfish and oversensitive for being offended by Logan’s comments and his boyfriend Edward (who Logan refers to as his “Momdad” which is strange too) is cool because he understands that Logan “doesn’t really mean anything by it”. Really? Is this the message we want to be giving teens?

And for a book that claims that beating a child is abuse, it seems to show that it is a quite effective way of straightening (no pun intended) a boy out. While Logan worries about the neighbor’s boy getting beaten and locked up, Edward’s mother beats him with spoons, makes him sleep in the shed, and generally brow beats him. And while he grumbles, it works. He turns almost instantly into a polite, hardworking boy who feels quite a bit of affection for the gruff old lady. He doesn’t listen to or respect his father who is repeatedly referred to as effeminate who worries too much and tries solve problems by talking. Really, all that Logan needed was to be beaten by an old lady with a spoon.

I wasn’t expecting an easy book with easy answers to living in what can be a difficult situation but this book, frankly, bothered me. ( )
  roguelibrarian | Sep 26, 2010 |
Full review at http://yannabe.com/2010/02/17/review-last-exit-to-normal/

Summary: After 17-year-old Ben’s dad announces that he’s gay, Ben rebels by skipping school and doing drugs. Then his dad decides they’re moving from the city to a small town in Montana. Trying to fit in while sporting a mohawk turns out to be the least of Ben’s problems.

Review: I wanted to love this book. I did love several aspects of it, and I am glad I read it. But it wasn’t one of my favorites.

What I loved:

* The grit—The tough conversations between Ben and his dad were so real they were almost painful to read at times. In a good way.
* The issues—Homophobia, child abuse, abandonment. The book takes on big-ticket issues with a capital I, but it didn’t feel like a thinly veiled morality play.
* The funny—Here, Ben is about to go on a date with a country girl, and he’s asking his dad’s boyfriend Edward for advice. Edward starts off with what he knows about the girl’s dad:

“If I remember correctly, he’s a very harsh man, and one not to cross.” He thought for a moment. “Yes sir, no sir, thank you, please, nice to meet you, Mr. Johan, firm handshake, look him in the eye, and for God’s sake don’t eye her boobs, even accidentally, unless you’re at least a mile from the house. Men have shotguns for a reason around here.”

I nodded, soaking it all in. Fear gripped me, but love would climb any mountain. “One more thing.”


“What is baling hay, anyway?”

He laughed. “And you thought you worked hard yesterday. Poor child.”


But here are the things that got in the way of me loving this book through-and-through:

* Backstory frontloading—The first chapter was s-l-o-w. I almost put the book down. I once read a tip in a writing book that you should cut your first chapter, start with the second, and sprinkle the first chapter backstory in later only if necessary. This book might have benefited from that trick.
* Internal monologue—Not everywhere, but in certain spots I felt like I was getting Ben’s entire thought process.
* Melodramatic tendencies—As the story started to wrap up, a few scenes came off as a bit cheesy for my taste.
* Kiss offscreen—Maybe this is just because I’m a girl that this bugged me, but the first kiss between Ben and the girl he’s interested in happened…offscreen! It’s this offhand comment in the narration. Bummer!

None of these issues were huge, but they all pulled me out of the story and got in the way of me connecting on a deeper level to the book. ( )
  kellyholmes | Feb 17, 2010 |
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This book is amazing and you just have to have to read it!!! ?It's great!
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375840982, Hardcover)

It’s true: After 17-year-old Ben’s father announces he’s gay and the family splits apart, Ben does everything he can to tick him off: skip school, smoke pot, skateboard nonstop, get arrested. But he never thinks he’ll end up yanked out of his city life and plunked down into a small Montana town with his dad and Edward, The Boyfriend. As if it’s not painful enough living in a hick town with spiked hair, a skateboard habit, and two dads, he soon realizes something’s not quite right with Billy, the boy next door. He’s hiding a secret about his family, and Ben is determined to uncover it and set things right. In an authentic, unaffected, and mordantly funny voice, Michael Harmon tells the wrenching story of an uprooted and uncomfortable teenaged guy trying to fix the lives around him–while figuring out his own.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:41 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Yanked out of his city life and plunked down into a small Montana town with his father and his father's boyfriend, seventeen-year-old Ben, angry and resentful about the changed circumstances of his life, begins to notice that something is not quite right with the little boy next door and determines to do something about it.… (more)

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