I just finished re-reading a great little novel by Stephen Chbosky called the perks of being a wallflower. The title is all in lower-case letters like that all over the book, so I thought I should refer to it this way. The book unfolds as a series of letters from a high school freshman named Charlie to someone unknown. Stories of friendship, love, sex, drugs and The Rocky Horror Picture Show play out in Charlie’s letters over the course of a year’s time.
At first, Charlie writes about various parts of his life in a stream-of-consciousness way. His brother is going off to college to play football, his sister is hiding the secret that her boyfriend hit her. He tells of his beloved Aunt Hellen who died on Charlie’s seventh birthday, which also happens to be Christmas Eve. “So, this is my life,” Charlie writes. “And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.”
But in between the family matters, Charlie reveals the new world he’s entering as a high school student. Charlie’s English teacher, Bill, gives him several books to read, each successive one becoming Charlie’s favorite. Then there’s Patrick, the hilarious senior from shop class, and his sister Sam, who befriend Charlie and bring him into their circle of friends. Presenting Charlie’s life through his letters adds depth, as we actually see Charlie develop his skills as a writer, which his friends and teacher believe he is destined to be.
Some of the realism in the perks of being a wallflower comes from the specific pop culture touchstones sprinkled through the book. Charlie makes a mix tape of winter songs which includes the Smiths, the Beatles, U2 and even a pre-Phil Collins Genesis. The holiday chestnut It’s a Wonderful Life is evoked to give insights into Charlie’s family history. Charlie comments often on the classic books he reads, including On the Road, Naked Lunch, Walden, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Fountainhead, among others.
“Of all the things I’ve done this year so far,” Charlie writes at one point, “I think I like The Rocky Horror Picture Show the best.” Patrick and Sam play Frank and Janet. Charlie also meets Mary Elizabeth, who is in charge of the show and prints a fanzine called Punk Rocky. For Christmas, Charlie gives Mary Elizabeth forty dollars, “To be spent on printing Punk Rocky in color next time,” which made me chuckle. If you’re not sure why, you might want to check the first couple pages of the publication you’re reading right now.
After ten shows, Charlie is called upon to be a last minute replacement for Rocky. “I had the best time I ever had in my whole life. I’m not kidding,” he writes. “I got to pretend that I was singing, and I got to dance around, and I got to wear a ‘feather boa’ in the grand finale…”
Besides the fact that Rocky Horror figured prominently in this novel, there were other things I absolutely loved about it. Charlie is a completely honest character, which gives the novel a refreshing ring of truth. Chbosky is able to maintain Charlie as an innocent and resists the more modern trend to infuse young characters with heavy irony. Even when the subject matter gets tricky, nothing seems crassly sensational or overly sentimental because of Charlie’s character.
I was also a high school student in 1991, when the novel takes place. As a quiet and introspective type who always got on better with older people, I saw a lot of myself in the character of Charlie. Much like Bill, the English teacher, says The Catcher in the Rye is the kind of book you make your own, the perks of being a wallflower had a special appeal to me.
But like some art that speaks to a special few so loudly, the perks of being a wallflower might not be to everyone’s liking. I’m not sure how this book would be interpreted by someone older than, say, their late 30s. I’ve read negative comments that the book is derivative of The Catcher in the Rye . And while Chbosky ultimately encourages the reader to “participate” in life, he has included some disturbing situations and subtexts that figure prominently in the book’s ending. I could have done without this extra drama, which I felt was a bit distracting.
Despite minor issues, I would not hesitate to recommend the perks of being a wallflower to anyone. I suspect that those of us who discovered Rocky Horror in the early 90’s will find something familiar in it, as perhaps anyone who is inclined to be a writer also would. The novel is ultimately about love, friendship and “participating” in life. Sharing this with all of you seems like a great way to celebrate that spirit, and I hope that others might find some of the same inspiration I found in the book.