Better Nate Than Ever (2013), by Tim Federle

Federle-NateNate is a bit of a drama queen, but a drama queen with a hilariously sardonic sense of humour. In the backstory that he’d “rather not start with” (1), he admonishes the reader: “But I’m getting off track—you’re distracting me—and there’s a lot to do” (3). There certainly is a lot to tell. Nate sees himself as nothing special, as an over-weight, undersized target (“my first word was ‘Mama,’ and then ‘The other babies are teasing me’” [2]), but as usual he is selling himself short. Enough backstory: we are launched on page 3 into the drama that Nate’s life has become. With his best friend, Libby, running interference, Nate is running away from home: Running from Jankburg, Pennsylvania, to New York City. There’s a lot of running. But Nate knows he needs to be “back by tomorrow night” (3).

There is so much to Nate’s life that he brushes aside in his insecurity. It doesn’t help that he has a homophobic brother, an alcoholic mother, and a father who thinks music is for sissies. Hence the running away to New York, to audition for a part in E.T.: The Musical. He doesn’t have much of a plan, except knowing that his Aunt Heidi lives in New York, somewhere…

Author Tim Federle manages to create a believable, poignant balance amongst the troubles Nate encounters, the ways he manages to get out of them—given his youth and naïveté—and his unquenchable ability to see the humour in himself and in life around him. We are taken on a trip into New York, with its strange assortment of individuals, following Nate as he encounters a word that is unforgiving in some ways and yet accepting of difference. He meets his Aunt Heidi and her friends, and learns finally why it is that he has always been outside in small-town society. “What do you like about New York so much?” Heidi’s friend asks him. “Two boys were dancing together in a club… and nobody stopped them” (203) … but as in so many of his insightful observations, his words are only in his mind; he can never give voice to his clever observations, never articulate his feelings to the adults around him.

For Nate, after everything that happens, acting is still a passion—“To be part of this club! It’s intoxicating” (265)—but he has learned about much more than the auditioning process. He has learned that there are people in the world who accept him as he is. He overcomes his insecurity-induced silence spectacularly: “Sometimes,” he notes, having called a homophobic trick-or-treater by a well-earned epithet, “there is no greater act of adulthood than swearing in front of your own mother” (271).

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