Despite being a PG-rated, angst-adjacent, teen coming of age story, it wasn't until the 270th page (of 289) that I realized "Zero Fade," Chris L. Terry's debut novel, was a Young Adult book. But that revelation wasn't a jolt or a letdown. Instead it was a reassuring reminder that "Young Adult" need not be a synonym for "juvenilia" and that it's possible to make this kind of story compelling to young (and older) readers without relying on clichés or stereotypes (the latter more striking because "Zero Fade" has an all-black cast).
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The climatic, action-packed, teen revenge fantasy scene that revealed the book's intended audience to me was, naturally, thrilling (as action-packed teen revenge fantasy scenes are apt to be). But it stood out from the prior pages because it was so less natural than the rest of this profile of Kevin, the adolescent protagonist trying to negotiate his way into manhood in Richmond, Va., in the early '90s. His journey is complicated by the older male figures in his life being limited to the ghost of his absentee father, the ogre of his bully (left back so many grades he's become a hulking man among boys), the homophobic voice of Eddie Murphy on a hand-me-down comedy cassette, and the loving, but closeted, presence of his dapper gay uncle. Making his journey more treacherous (from a 13-year-old's perspective), his single mother is incapable of executing the book's title haircut, and there's no man of the house to take him to a barbershop.
"Zero Fade" takes place over 10 dramatic (and, alternately, mundane) days in Kevin's life, where he gets grounded for mouthing off at his mom, deals with escalating threats from his bully Tyrell, sells out his nerdy best friend David, sees his mother start dating, bonds with his burgeoning bad girl sister, is floored by the revelation that his role model uncle is gay, and obsesses over the new Jim Carrey movie. Told mostly from Kevin's first-person perspective (the book boldly, and successfully, shifts on occasion to a third-person account of his uncle Paul gaining enough confidence to ask out his object of affection and come out to his nephew), "Zero Fade" excels because of Kevin's voice. Capturing period urban vernacular, teen cadences and healthy doses of Mary J. Blige-era cultural references without any hint of dialect or awkward nostalgia is an impressive feat.
But more impressive is Terry's decision to portray Kevin as average. He is neither the cookie-cutter ghetto teen devastated by poverty, nor the middle-class Cosby kid. He's self-conscious about his body (particularly when the girl he likes references his "mushy tushy") but self-confident enough to ask her to the movies. And though Kevin's an aspiring comedian, the author understands that aspirations at that age, when a bad haircut or a favorite hoodie dominate one's brain space, are more concepts than focused-upon finish lines. So unlike precocious teens in so many books filling Scholastic order sheets (who frequently fight monsters or crime without second thoughts), he is about a much a comedian as he is an astronaut or Indian chief. That said, the book itself is as funny, funky and pitch perfect as the better Def Jam comics of that era (whom Kevin would not have seen, as his comic training is limited to memorizing "Simpsons" and "In Living Color" jokes and sneaking listens to a decade-old tape).
Perhaps my failure to realize this charming, quirky story (made timely by recent gay rights triumphs but as timeless as the best tales of burgeoning adulthood) was intended for adolescents reveals my age. That a book for teens could engage an adult is certainly a given for a generation that can't remember a time when grown folks weren't shamelessly reading "Harry Potter" or "Catching Fire" on every train car (or any kid who's picked up a Dan Brown novel and realized the actual grade level of the writing). Perhaps I was thrown by local publishing house Curbside Splendor's unconventional design (a pocket-sized brick of a book with dynamic graffiti and comics-inspired design). But I'd like to attribute my oversight to a more optimistic option: good literature, like good Jim Carrey movies, defies demographics.
Jake Austen is editor of Roctober magazine and co-author of "Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop." He lives in Chicago.
By Chris L. Terry, Curbside Splendor, 289 pages, $12 paperback