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April 9, 2006 E-mail story   Print   Most E-Mailed

'It's Kind of a Funny Story: A Novel'

*Ned Vizzini
Miramax: 446 pp., $16.95
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Review by Susan Carpenter

SUICIDE is the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds and the sixth leading cause among children 5 to 14. What's the reason for such grim statistics? Young adult author Ned Vizzini calls it "the sixth-life crisis" kind of like a midlife crisis, only it happens at age 14.

His new book, "It's Kind of a Funny Story," is the first-person tale of an over achieving, sex-obsessed teen named Craig Gilner, who spent his final year of junior high cramming for the entrance exam to Manhattan's most elite high school and the first semester at said high school free-falling into depression. For a virginal nerd, being the smartest kid in class had been both a vindication and a rush, but when the smartest kid from one school is in class with the smartest kids from every other school in town (many of whom are also enjoying the benefits of a steady girlfriend or boyfriend), the vindication is moot, the rush is killed and the result, for Gilner, at least was a stint in a New York hospital.

Gilner's story is a veiled fictionalization of Vizzini's own recent struggle with the disease, prompted, it seems, by too much success at too young an age. Now 25, Vizzini's career dates back to age 15, when he began writing essays about his high school experiences for the alternative weekly the New York Press. His humor pieces were such a hit that at 17, the New York Times Magazine which has turned away legions of more pedigreed writers invited him to pen an article. His self-deprecating essay, titled "Teen Angst? Naaah ," led to a collection of related first-person pieces published as a book by the same name when he was 19.

By the time Vizzini was 21, an age when most college kids have no greater goal than getting drunk and having sex, he already had an enviable career. He had finished a second book, but instead of feeling proud or excited, was having difficulty sleeping, eating and controlling suicidal thoughts. Thanks to meds, he muddled through and his novel "Be More Chill" about a high school dork who finally clicks with the cool kids thanks to a super-computer pill he swallowed was published in 2004.

Legendary young-adult author Judy Blume praised "Be More Chill," calling it "fun, wacky, outrageous." The "Today Show" recommended the novel for its book club. And the Weitz brothers makers of the horndog teen comedy "American Pie" optioned it for a feature film.

Not long after, Vizzini checked himself into the adult psychiatric ward in Brooklyn's Methodist Hospital. He was there for just a week, but his stay apparently was inspiring as well as curative. Seven days after his release, Vizzini set to work on "It's Kind of a Funny Story." Twenty days later, he had written the entire book.

How much editing was involved in getting its 400-plus pages to print? Who knows, but the resulting novel is impressive. Vizzini's sense of pacing, structure and character is solid, and his casual vernacular is dead-on, simultaneously capturing the paranoia and self-obsessed negativity of depression as well as the sexual curiosity of adolescence.

The book opens on a fairly common teenage scene. Craig is hanging with his friends, who are watching a movie as a joint makes the rounds. He does his best to go with the flow, but his brain has a different plan. It doesn't connect with the superficiality of his immediate situation and is "cycling," as he calls it, about his stress vomiting, weight loss and fears that he may never feel better, which only pulls him further down.

He's convinced that everyone has noticed, even the family dog. Before Craig got depressed, the dog liked him. "Since I started losing it, he started barking at me," Gilner says of the Tibetan spaniel that is his mother's constant companion.

At this point, the reader has no idea why Craig is so down. Neither does Dr. Minerva, the latest in a string of therapists his mother has hired to help him. Craig is 15 and sees Dr. Minerva twice a week, but she's having little effect because he is too ashamed to reveal the depths of his desperation to her, to his parents or to his friends, who are more concerned with fitting in and appearing to be perfect than openly communicating, even though many of them are also depressed.

The Zoloft that Craig is taking doesn't seem to be working. When his prescription runs out, he doesn't tell anyone and he doesn't refill it. "Pills [are] for wimps," he decides. Instead, he develops a suicide plan to ride his bicycle to the Brooklyn Bridge in the middle of the night and jump, but he misses his opportunity when he oversleeps. Thinking better of his plan, he dials a suicide hotline. The voice on the phone suggests that he go to the hospital because suicide, she says, is a medical emergency.

The last two-thirds of the book are spent in a hospital, and the author revels in the comic possibilities of a psych ward without overplaying it. We meet a wide-ranging cast of characters suffering from various psychiatric maladies, including Noelle, a "cutter" who ripped her face open with a pair of scissors because she was tired of "playing the pretty game."

Craig eventually discovers that he's been playing a similar game about being smart and through a blossoming romance with Noelle, he begins to understand that friends aren't really friends if they can't talk about their problems and that he needs to leave the school he worked so hard to get into.

"It's Kind of a Funny Story" isn't just kind of funny. It's laugh-out-loud hilarious at times and always unflinchingly honest. Instead of doling out meds, doctors should consider prescribing this book for depressed teens feeling the pressures of scholastic achievement, emerging sexuality and perfectionism.

Susan Carpenter is a Times staff writer.


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