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book review of A.S. King's "Everybody Sees the Ants"

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Date published: 11/6/2011

"EVERYBODY Sees the Ants" is A.S. King's third young adult novel and also her most ambitious to date.

I qualify it with "to date" because King has written her three YA novels in the span of two years and is becoming so prolific that I wouldn't be surprised if there is a fourth release before this review is even published. And this prolificacy is certainly a good thing based on the consistent quality of her books.

In "Everybody Sees the Ants," Lucky Linderman is a high-schooler in Pennsylvania who has vowed not to smile after a freshman-year incident where he was essentially tortured by his lifelong nemesis and bully, Nader McMillan. Nader is the quintessential bully with a litigious attorney for a father, so King has created the perfect teenage villain. Lucky's home life isn't a whole lot better, where his father, still haunted by his own father's uncertain status as MIA in Vietnam, dives into the restaurant he owns rather than defending and fathering his son.

On top of the bullying and the less-than-ideal home life, Lucky's grandmother asks him to keep up the quest for answers in the unresolved status of her husband. So nearly every time Lucky closes his eyes to go to sleep, he's in the jungles of 'Nam trying to bring his grandfather home. A Nirvana album didn't have this much teen angst.

All three of King's novels have dabbled in the surreal and to good effect because to many teens their universe seems as alien as if they had a squadron of ants following them around and offering script and gestures to the life that is unfolding (hence the title). Show me a teenager whose problems aren't paramount to the rest of the world and I'll show you a teenager who just isn't trying very hard. King grasps this aspect of teenage self-importance while not belittling it or dismissing it, and capturing this sliver of understanding of the teenager's plight is what has always made the best young adult fiction.

Lucky's path to relative normalcy and a return to smiling is not an easy one, but then few are. King captures the journey without the need for a moral soapbox. In fact, her message in all of her novels is reminiscent of one written by the late Kurt Vonnegut: "Many people need desperately to receive this message: 'I feel and think much as you do, care about many things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.'"

Drew Gallagher is a freelance reviewer in Spotsylvania County.

EVERYBODY SEES THE ANTS By A.S. King (Little, Brown, $17.99, 288 pp.)