By Geoff Herbach
Available now from Sourcebooks Fire
Read my reviews of Nothing Special and I'm With Stupid
Although FAT BOY VS. THE CHEERLEADERS is Geoff Herbach's fourth novel, it is his first that isn't about Felton Reinstein. There are similarities: new narrator Gabe is also a teen boy from a single parent household who finds himself developing new relationships and a new devotion to his interests. There's a similar stream-of-consciousness style. But while FAT BOY VS. THE CHEERLEADERS doesn't find Herbach stepping completely outside of its wheelhouse, it isn't a retread of Herbach's debut trilogy.
Gabe drinks lots of sodas from the machine in the cafeteria - they're cheap, delicious, and the money supports the band. Gabe is a band member, and it's probably his favorite thing about school. He and his friends notice a link between the biggest kids in school, the poorest kids in school, and the kids who drink the most soda in school, but they money goes to support the band, so it all works out. At the end of the school year, there's a sudden soda price hike, the announcement of a new dance team, and band camp is cancelled. Gabe can put two and two together.
I was in band in high school, along with probably a fourth to a third of the school. It kind of amazes me that there aren't more band geek stories in YA. Herbach, through Gabe, really expresses what's great about band. That element added a special bit of appeal to me. I think the title and cover are punchy, but wish there had been a way for the band element to be apparent without reading the blurb.
FAT BOY VS. THE CHEERLEADERS is framed as Gabe's confession to the police for stealing $14 from the infamous soda machine. Thus, from the start readers know things are set to go awry. Gabe's rambling confession is not all that plausible, but it is entertaining. I loved seeing him grow into himself throughout the story and make changes to be a better person. I also liked seeing him receive a kick to the ass whenever he needed one. Gabe may have a good cause, but he's not always in the right.
I know that when it comes to fat characters, people always wonder whether they lose weight and whether weight loss is equated with goodness. Yes, Gabe loses (some) weight. (The story covers a fairly short period of time; I got the impression Gabe was still fat at the end of the story, just slightly less fat.) It worked for me because Gabe's weight came from a combination of unhealthy places: eating crappy food (because his dad never provided anything else), never being physical (except for grudgingly making it through marching band for the glory of concert band), and emotional eating.
FAT BOY VS. THE CHEERLEADERS is a short, snappy read with lots of positive, sly messages. It allows the issues it tackles to be complex, even when they're mined for outsized comedy set pieces. (For instance, despite the title, the book explores why it is wrong to demonize the cheerleaders for profiting from something that adults did.) Herbach continues to be one of my favorite contemporary authors.
If you feel inspired by Gabe and want to help provide funding to musical education, consider a donation to VH1's Save the Music Foundation.