In Stoner & Spaz, Ron Koertge gives us Ben Bancroft, a sixteen-year-old obsessed with movies and his own cerebral palsy. He’s so focused on how he assumes his body looks to others that he stays in the theater until after the credits are over, in “the comforting dark” so people won’t stare at him. One arm and leg are most affected by his CP, and he doesn’t use any mobility aids. Although my physicality is very different, the sixteen-year-old me of long ago nodded and winced in recognition. I liked Ben’s responses to his friend and sometimes sexual partner, chaotic cocaine addict Colleen, who smokes pot when she can’t get her drug of choice. Yet, I wish that his interactions with other people who see him only as Spaz weren’t glossed over for the sake of focusing on her.
Ben’s situation is presented somewhat piteously, which may turn off readers of any age. He’s been abandoned by his “unstable” mom, and now lives with his grandmother who picks out clothes he hates. He escapes into films, and especially loves monster movies. Early in the novel, Colleen wants to get high in the alley behind the theater and invites him to come along. He thinks: “First of all, no way am I gimping down the aisle during Monster Week while the lights are still on. People will think I’m part of the show.” Ben observes that he is “all of a sudden totally conscious of [his]body” when she returns and sits next to him, but the truth is, he’s always aware of it: he’s simply more aware when Colleen touches him. His narration is never far from the body he often describes brutally:
My elbow is touching hers, and it’s like being plugged into a wall socket. Not that it’s some big horndog charge, either. I don’t mean that. It’s the way she’s talking to me. To me. I know what sex is. Guys in the hall talk about it. Or girls acting tough. But I only hear things, see? I get them secondhand. On the rebound. Life as an eavesdropper.
Ben’s certainty that he will never have a social or sexual life is troubling to me as an adult reader, but I recognize that young adults may see themselves in him. I remember this feeling, when there was no projecting forward into the future; there was only right now.
Koertge’s website and several interviews suggest that he is non-disabled, so I appreciate that he achieves many moments when the way Ben relates to his disability feels real and true. For example, apart from her body, it’s Colleen’s honesty and dark humor that make her so attractive to Ben. He marvels: “Nobody talks about my disability. Nobody ever makes a joke about it. They talk toward me and pretend I’m like everybody else. Better, actually. Brave and strong. A plucky lad.” A lot of nonfiction has been written about the way inspiration is linked to disability and the way inspiring others is often presented as a consolation prize for being disabled—but not a lot of fiction for young adults. So I was disappointed that such a complex observation, even a worldview, is only unpacked in Ben’s head. If he had wrestled with it further, it would have counteracted his sometimes too-easy slide from self-deprecation to profound alienation multiple times throughout the novel.
In contrast to Ben’s character, Colleen has a well-worn trajectory as an addict. When she asks Ben to write a paper for her, she promises, “I’ll show you my tits.” She is used to guys wanting her body. She even tells Ben that her mom’s boyfriend tried to molest her and her mom didn’t believe it had happened; she is matter-of-fact about the event, about her hatred of her mother, and about the lack of feeling she has between highs. Still, even when her character’s behavior is somewhat predictable, she leads Ben to compelling, sometimes startling revelations.
Koertge’s treatment of disabled sexuality is one of my favorite things about the novel. It’s not a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship, and Ben’s perspective is mercilessly self-conscious. He confesses after changing clothes, “Fifteen minutes later, I’m standing on the curb, still sweating from the struggle. God, I hate getting dressed.” But he doesn’t hate it just because the CP makes it difficult. He also dreads seeing his reflection in the mirror. It is a painful vulnerability that only intensifies when Ben and Colleen have (protected) sex.
“Nobody,” I say, “has ever seen me naked. I don’t look at myself naked.”
“Come over here, and I’ll help.”
I shake my head. “No way. You’ll look.”
He lets her because he needs help, but also because she doesn’t see him as an object of pity. Ben tells his grandmother while he cries thinking about how much he loves Colleen:
“Grandma, in the last three years, except for you, she’s the only person who actually touched me, actually put her hands on me.” I shake my stunted arm at her. “She touched this, she touched my stupid leg. It was like it didn’t matter.”
There are weaker moments in Ben’s portrayal, though, such as Ben’s assertion that: “I don’t pace. People with CP find other ways to be nervous.” It’s a good line that doesn’t present CP as the spectrum it actually is. Similarly, he explains that “[for]somebody with C.P., changing clothes is no piece of cake. The good side has to help the bad side, so it takes a little while.” But CP can affect anything from only one limb or one side of the body to the whole body, and can be mild or more involved. What he really means is “for me.”
I found the most problematic moment to be an exchange with Colleen’s dealer boyfriend Ed, in which Ed contemplates living with what he imagines CP to be: “You’re a tough little fucker. I couldn’t handle it. I’d kill myself.” This is a scenario I’ve actually experienced multiple times in interactions with strangers, so I was eager to see how Ben responds when disability is framed as worse than death. But Ben says nothing. Koertge may have been counting on readers to infer a reaction from Ben. He previously establishes that Ben despises Ed for the way Ed treats Colleen, and for keeping her supplied with drugs. Still, a verbal or bodily response would have been better than, “Then we just stood there.”
Koertge leaves Ben at a crossroads, wanting to see if there’s a future with Colleen, yet finding himself on the radar of a fellow film geek who figures in the sequel. The narrative, however imperfect, is funny and often unafraid of ambivalence, and I feel similarly ambivalent: liking a lot of what I got, yet wanting more of the stuff between the lines of what Ben says and does.