Evan Carter knows exactly how to find the girls who will say, “Yes.” He specializes in avoiding long term commitments or any consequences from his conquests. Odds are always good that he and his father will be moving again soon, leaving any messy loose ends behind. But then Evan hooks up with the wrong girl with violent consequences. After the near-fatal beating, he and his dad retreat to the family cabin by a lake in Minnesota where Evan tries to heal both physically and mentally.
That’s right, Evan is the victim of the violence, not the perpetrator. His attackers are his roommate and another student at his boarding school. Make no mistake, this violence was still about owning the girl’s body. Just before they begin beating him, one of his attackers asks him, “Why you gotta f$#% around with what doesn’t belong to you?” (p. 18) And we learn as the book progresses that these guys also violently attacked the girl, punishing her for exercising her choice. Still, it is unusual to see a book like this told from the guy’s point of view.
My first reaction to this book was that Evan was a real jerk. I was afraid I was going to hate him as a character and then not like the book. I was wrong. Yes, Evan behaves like a creep, only too happy to hook up with girls willing to engage in casual sex and dropping them as soon as he got what he wanted. But he makes it clear that he knows this behavior is wrong. He refers to this part of his personality as “Dirtbag Evan.” But he doesn’t seem to know how to have a relationship any other way. This book is about his journey, learning how to relate to girls as people, how to have a real relationship, and how to accept responsibility without a crippling guilt and self-loathing that would keep him from changing. “Dirtbag Evan” may be a part of his personality, but it is not all he is. Along the way, we come to learn something about why Evan acts the way he does.
I read this book immediately after reading Charm and Strange by Stephanie Keuhn, and quickly saw a lot of similarities. These are two dark stories about young men dealing with the aftermath of severe trauma. I found myself wishing I had read something lighter, less intense, between them. But unlike Charm & Strange which retains a very dark, bleak tone throughout, Sex & Violence sets the violence firmly at the beginning of the book. Mesrobian than recounts Evan’s gradual reconnection with the rest of the world. It is only through his interactions with others that Evan is able to begin to put his life back together. So as the story progresses, the focus spreads to include Evan’s family and new friends. These secondary characters are fully-developed, especially the group of teens who become his friends. They have their own dramas and anxieties as they go through the summer after high school graduation facing their futures with both anticipation and nervousness.
Unlike Charm & Strange, which left me feeling as if I’d been punched in the gut, Sex & Violence focused more on the process of recovery. There is no happy-ever-after, and Evan will continue to have to deal with the physical and emotional scars. But it left me feeling like there might be hope. I think that this is my favorite of the Morris Award nominees so far.