The Gospel According to Larry
by Janet Tashjian
Written as an alleged account that a teen prophet handed to the author to publish, Tashjian's (Tru Confessions) funny, thoughtful novel takes on some sophisticated issues. Highly intelligent 17-year-old Josh Swensen wants to save the world and hopefully seduce Beth, the best friend for whom he pines. Josh's self-deprecating, humorous tone carries readers swiftly along ("Can someone please explain to me how this preoccupation with dopey athletes happens even to headstrong young women who... score 750s on their SATs?" he says when Beth gravitates to "Todd Terrific, a new jock she was obsessed with"). As the anonymous Larry, the hero starts a Web site (www.thegospelaccordingtolarry.com) on which he rants against consumer culture and its obsession with celebrities. But as Larry's popularity grows, Josh's identity becomes impossible to hide, forcing him to reevaluate his medium for instigating change. The popularity of his site which contains his "sermons," photos of some of his 75 possessions and parodies of ad campaigns may not be entirely convincing to some teens, but his compelling character and other clever flourishes, like Larryfest, the advertising-free rock festival put together by U2's Bono, or the make-up counter at Bloomingdale's, where Josh goes to connect with the spirit of his dead mother, keep the novel clipping along. Tashjian not only gives readers a good primer on materialism (and Thoreau), she also makes them think about a different kind of activism. Ages 12-up.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
School Library Journal
Gr 8 Up-Josh is bright, articulate, idealistic, and in love with Beth, the girl next door and his best friend since sixth grade. Afraid to declare himself-especially in light of Beth's flirtations with a socially connected but intellectually suspect football player-he pours his energy into a clever Web site, through which his alter ego, Larry, advocates introspection, tolerance, and anticonsumerism. Beth adores Larry, as do thousands of other teens and adults across the nation. Now Josh has a new problem: when and how does he reveal Larry's true identity to Beth? Also, all of his best intentions become subverted as more people embrace Larry's values and a media circus ensues as Josh's identity is revealed. Big issues are addressed here: alienation, truthfulness, family loyalty, fame, privacy, friendship and love, and spiritual guidance. Larry's sermons are brief and pithy, and interspersed between Josh's fast-paced narrative of the events of the spring before his high school graduation and that summer. Tashjian's gift for portraying bright adolescents with insight and humor reaches near perfection here. The author proposes one more conceit on top of the Josh/Larry dichotomy: she offers herself as a character, presenting Josh's narrative as the purported manuscript she is handed in a grocery-store parking lot. A terrific read with a credible and lovable main character.-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
From Booklist, November 1, 2001, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.:
Gr. 7-10.The frame story is intriguing: a teenager encounters Tashjian in a grocery store. He knows she's a writer and hands her a bundle of typed pages. At first she demurs, but then she agrees to help facilitate its publication. And why not? Josh Swensen, or «Larry» as he's known around the world, has an amazing story to tell. >
Recorded on an old manual typewriter (as shown by the text's typeface), the tale begins as something of a lark. Josh fancies himself a philosopher; he's undeniably bright, and he wants to change the world. Using the pseudonym Larry, he posts sermons against consumerism on a Web site, hoping to get some hits from kindred spirits. His message takes off with frightening speed: he's soon getting thousands of hits a day. Josh is determined to keep his identity a secret, even from Beth, his best friend and the girl he has loved since the sixth grade. Ironically, although Beth has never shown a romantic interest in Josh, she is quite taken with Larry. Larry clubs are springing up around the country, and Beth starts a group to discuss his writings. The movement snowballs. Even Bono, the anti-globalization rock star from U2, lauds Larry and organizes a Woodstock-like festival in honor of his pure vision for the future. >
But trouble lurks in the form of «betagold,» the e-mail moniker of a woman out to uncover Larry's identity. She does, and Josh's hellish visions about consumerism and celebrity become his personal nightmare. Killing himself seems to be his only way out, but after he fakes his own death, the nightmare grows even darker. >
Tashjian does something very fresh here, which will hit teens at a visceral level. She takes the natural idealism young people feel, personalizes it in the character of Josh/Larry, and shows that idealism transformed by unintended consequences. The book's frank discussion about topics paramount to kids--celebrity worship, consumerism, and the way multinational corporations shape our lives--is immediate, insightful, and made even more vivid because it's wrapped in the mystery of Larry. >
Overall, the concept, structure, and themes are superior to the writing. Still, Josh and his family, friends, and admirers seem real, and that's hard to pull off since they are roaming around a timely allegory. The plot, too, glides along smoothly with a surprise around every corner. There are a few over-the-top spots. Josh's mother is dead, but he still «speaks» to her at the place she loved best--the cosmetics counter at Bloomingdales. His stepfather, Peter, conveniently works for an ad agency, thus giving Josh/Larry access to secret advertising campaigns that allow him to legitimize his writings and eventually alienate his stepfather. The book's worst character is Peter's girlfriend, an acquisitive airhead who spends her time and money collecting plates, ties, anything with the image of Humpty Dumpty. She is stereotype writ large. There's plenty in this story that is larger than life, but in important ways. >
Josh opens the chapters of his book with quotes from the New Testament, and it's not a stretch that he sees himself as a messiah figure, as do many others. The biblical images, carefully chosen, juxtapose interestingly with the clear-eyed view of contemporary culture and the questions it raises: What do people need to live happy lives? Can any mass movement really be good? Is decency always so easily perverted? Maybe discussion groups really will spring up to consider the gospel according to Larry. As Tashjian shows, there's plenty to talk about.
¾: Ilene Cooper.: