The match-up between The Great American Whatever and We Are The Ants was a tough call. Both focus on gay male protagonists who use humor to deal with grief and messy relationships with family and friends, but are also very different books. Both are worth reading and passing on. I had previously read The Great American Whatever and listened to We Are the Ants, so for the purposes of judging I did the reverse, with some surprising results.
I read The Great American Whatever over the summer and thought it was pretty good, but not spectacular. Snarky teenage filmmaker Quinn Roberts struggles over the death of his sister/film-making partner, Annabeth, while also struggling to come out. I thought of it (perhaps too dismissively) as “Me and Earl and the Dead Girl.” I felt strongly then, and still do, that Quinn’s grief for his sister is the main story, and his first short-lived romance is somewhat of a distraction. Federle’s funny, but there’s at least one Donald Trump joke that was already dated at the time of publication and is REALLY dated now. I liked the characters, though; and the messy relationships between Quinn, his best friend Geoff, and his mother felt true. The side plots about Quinn’s hero Ricky Devlin coming to town and the summer film program felt contrived. When does that much ever happen in the same week, seriously? Listening to the audiobook helped to elevate the story’s strengths and downplay its weaknesses. The revelations about Geoff and Annabeth, and the emotional breakthroughs between Quinn and his mother and Geoff made a strong impact. I love that The Great American Whatever is a story about Quinn learning that he doesn’t know as much as he thought he did, and accepting it.
I listened to We Are The Ants in the car back in December, and found myself driving around longer than necessary in order keep listening. Henry Denton struggles over the suicide of his boyfriend, Jesse, and whether he should save the earth from destruction by aliens. I found a lot to love about this book. I can’t get enough science fiction with a sense of humor, and equally refreshing to me is that Henry is gay and out, and his family is fine with it. Hutchinson’s dry, world-weary sense of humor is also a big plus. His intermittent scenarios for world destruction are on-point. He successfully develops a number of interesting female characters including Henry’s mom, his Nana, his brother’s girlfriend Zooey, his friend Audrey, and teacher Ms. Faraci. I appreciate his depiction of an abusive relationship between young men. Finally, I love the ambiguity of the aliens’ existence. Are they real? Or are they a metaphor for depression that Henry invented? If the aliens aren’t real, then where does Henry go during his “abductions?” Reading the print book turned up a few flaws. Some of the dialog read a lot cheesier on the page than it sounded in the car. There are some contrivances, like Henry’s writing assignment for Ms. Faraci, and Diego’s (too perfect?) appearance in and impact on Henry’s life. Even so, the story sucked me in and moved just as quickly on the page as on audio. The humor still felt fresh, and Henry’s defiant conclusion gained power.
In the end, We Are the Ants is the funnier and more resonant of the two, and my pick to move on.