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85A: Why Being An Outcast Can Suck and Inspire

By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 2, 2010 8:30PM

Author Kyle Thomas Smith will be reading from his book this Saturday.
Seamus O’Grady is more than an angsty teen. He’s a pissed-off teenager who has a pretty lame social life and even worse family situation. Seamus is not the shy Perks of Being a Wallflower type who will gradually come into his own. Being the main character of 85A Kyle Thomas Smith's new novel is one of the few things Seamus has going for him.

85A, the same name of the bus route that punk-rock Seamus takes to his hoity-toity Jesuit high school, follows Seamus through one of his typically awful days. He’s a bullied outcast. His teachers look down on him, especially because he’s so close to flunking all his classes. His parents’ expectations for his success are based on the accomplishments of his brother. And his only adult ally is his physiatrist, with whom Seamus is romantically involved; the one person with authority who Seamus respects isn’t exactly the best role model.

It’s clear that author Kyle Thomas Smith was inspired by Catcher in the Rye (the back of the book describes Seamus as a cross between Holden Caulfield and Johnny Rotten). Similar to Holden Caulfield, Seamus doesn’t use the standards of his white middle class upbringing to determine how he should dress, act or what he should aspire to be. He’s not stupid, but he’s not motivated. In typical teenager fashion, Seamus doesn’t understand that if he wants more credit, then he needs to earn it. Sympathizing with him is challenging. It’s difficult to feel sorry for a character that already spends so much time feeling sorry for himself. Due to his circumstances, it’s not that the self-pity isn’t justified. But Seamus is smart enough to know that if he wants to leave home and start over in London, failing school isn’t going to help. His one friend - an intelligent, artistic and mature-for-her-age girl named Tressa - constantly echoes the same sentiment. But Seamus has spent so much of his life resisting the inapplicable advice of family and teachers that when some good advice comes along, he either isn’t willing to listen or doesn’t know how.

85A is particularly relevant to Chicago readers because it’s set here. As a loner who hates being home and has a long commute to school, Seamus spends a great deal of time on the CTA. When he’s not riding the bus, he’s on the Blue Line El. As he travels south from Jarvis Park, Seamus has a lot of time to observe the different neighborhoods and communities of Chicago. Since Seamus’ social skills are lacking, his opinion of these places and the people who inhabit them is almost purely based on observation and is not always correct.

For example, Seamus describes a brief and forgettable encounter on the El with a stranger named Colby. Seamus spends months dreaming about the idyllic life they could have made together. But when he once again meets Colby, Seamus realizes his vision of their relationship was only based on his imagination. Then again, imagination isn’t a bad thing. Once Seamus is able to imagine something, he is able to start taking the right steps so that he can make it a reality. At the end of the book, Seamus has not yet overcome adversity to find a place he feels always feels happy and comfortable. But he has started imagining that such a thing is possible. And if a guy as miserable as Seamus can envision a happy future, then we all should be able to do the same.

Kyle Thomas Smith will be reading from 85A this Saturday at 7 p.m. at Quimby's.