Reading Hard Stuff

sleepersHaving just finished Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra, I was eager to see what others thought of the book.  I discovered an interesting phenomenon.  Some people enjoyed the book but gave it a low rating because of the dark and disturbing subject matter.  Others did not enjoy the writing, but gave it high marks because of the dark and disturbing subject matter, the thinking being that if it’s a true story and it makes you uncomfortable, it has to be “good.”  I think I fall somewhere in the middle.

I had seen the movie several years ago, so the more disturbing content was not a complete surprise to me, though the book did go into greater detail and covered many, many more instances of the abuse these four friends were subjected to.  Reading these parts made me extremely uncomfortable.  In fact, knowing they were coming, I almost didn’t read the book at all.  I don’t shy away from difficult content as a general rule, but there are some places I just don’t want to go.  The presence of such content does not make a book or the writing in the book “bad.”  But for me, it also doesn’t make it automatically “good.”

I found the story very compelling.  The writing was not the best I have ever seen, but the story sort of carried itself.  Though I did not myself grow up in Hell’s Kitchen, and these boys had a much rougher home life than I did, there were some universal truths to their experiences that resonated with me.  One of the biggest lessons, which is true for everyone on a greater or lesser scale, is that you can choose your actions, but you can’t always choose the consequences.  In our youth, we don’t realize the potentially life-altering consequences of the seemingly mundane decisions that we make.  I wouldn’t feel comfortable having my children or any young children read this book, at least not anytime soon, but this is one of the most valuable life lessons there is.

It frustrates me a little when books and movies seem to rise to greatness based solely on their challenging content.  I don’t feel like calling any out specifically, but you know what I mean.  Those shameless award-grabbers that deal with some horrific disease or other tragic condition that are not even well executed but they get all manner of accolades simply for their tackling, even if underwhelmingly, of that difficult topic.  I am for a merit-based analysis of art.  Maybe that makes me a grinch.  But too many people, I think, blindly praise as good any work that deals with tragedy or challenging topics.  Anyone can write a book about cancer or death camps or abuse; it doesn’t, in my opinion, mean that everyone should.

That being said, I thought this book was good and good.  Moving.  Heartbreaking.  But also inspiring, and full of universal truths.  Has anyone else read the book?  Anyone else have any thoughts on the phenomenon herein described?

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