Monday, 22 February 2010
Review: Fighting Ruben Wolfe by Markus Zusak
Keep it clean, fellas. Fair fight. Okay. Do it. Don't go down. If you go down, get up. The bell, the fists, the fight. It begins, and the first round is death. The second round is the coffin. The third is the funeral. The Wolfe brothers know how to fight - they've been fighting all their lives. Now there's more at stake than just winning.
Markus Zusak burst onto the international scene a couple of years ago with the amazing debut adult novel, The Book Thief. However, Mr Zusak has been writing for some time and this book for the younger market, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, was first published in Australia back in 2000. Thanks to Definitions this book is now being reissued with a stylish new cover, and please believe me when I say it is desperately in need of your attention. If ever there was a book written for disaffected boys who claim that they don't like reading then this is it.
The story focuses on the lives of Ruben and Cameron Wolfe, brothers in a family that is going through difficult times. Their father is struggling to find work after a period of recuperation following an accident at work which led to him losing all of his plumbing jobs, their mother cleans the houses of other people. There is also brother Steve who, in the words of Cameron as he narrates the story, is "working and waiting and dying to leave home"; and finally there is their sister Sarah, who is turning to alcohol to ease her own frustrations and is starting to get a reputation at school for being a bit of a slapper. The boys have to put up with a barrage of wisecracks about their out-of-work father, but when one unfortunate boy suggests "if your family needs the money so bad, your sister should take up whoring. She gets around a bit anyway, I hear..." Ruben finally loses his cool and "smashes the guy, with bloody fists and trampling eyes".
Word travels fast in this small community, and it isn't long before Perry Cole, the organiser of an underground boxing racket, is waiting for the boys outside their house with an offer - he wants the boys to box for him at fifty dollars a fight (plus tips). Of course, it doesn't take the boys long to decide that money like this could help solve some of the family's financial problems, although deep down they know they aren't really doing it for the money - they are doing it "...for some other reason. Some other reason that wants inside us."
For me, the stand-out aspect of this book is Cameron's narration of the story. His voice is so typical of a disillusioned teenager: frustrated, anxious about the present and the future, rebellious and laced with boyish humour. His sensitivity also shines through, with his descriptions of his family and their various faults, and the close bond he shares with Ruben that grows even tighter as they go from one fight to the next. It is this, as well as the fighting, that will make this book so appealing to boys - many will read this and instantly be able to identify with Cameron and his feelings. It is relevant, without being obviously moralistic or patronising.
This book is about a bloody and savage sport, so obviously there is quite a high degree of violence exhibited at times. Sometimes this violence is pretty brutal, but the way Mr Zusak writes it, it becomes more poetic that gory. Boys with good imaginations will be able to picture the fights, blow by blow, but these violent moments are also tempered by Cameron's wonderful humour that runs throughout the whole story. There are many laugh-out-loud comments made by Cameron in his narration, a perfect example being his description of how he and Ruben walk their neighbour's unfortunately-named "fluff midget thing" dog Miffy - " .... and then there are these two juvenile idiots walking a ball of fluff down the road. It's out of hand. That's what it is. It's disgraceful".
As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed Fighting Ruben Wolfe (ok... I'll admit I read it twice, I enjoyed it so much). It is only 179 pages long, so can be read quite quickly, although even some reluctant readers might decide to take their time over it to savour Mr Zusak's glorious prose. It is published by Definitions and is in stores now. My thanks go to the nice people at Random House for sending me a copy.