There was a time when most of the pop-culture stories told about LGBTQ teens were coming-out stories, or had tragic endings, or both. Happily, that's no longer the case. On the heels of the upbeat rom-com Love, Simon (based on a popular young-adult book) comes Chris Tebbetts' highly entertaining YA novel Me Myself and Him, a story of parallel worlds, first love and the hazards of doing whippets.
The protagonist, 18-year-old Chris Schweitzer, is gay, and everybody in his world already knows it. He'd like a boyfriend, but as the story opens, he has a more urgent problem: He just did a whippet in the parking lot of the restaurant where he works and face-planted on concrete. Now his nostrils are "completely different sizes," and he's about to get in trouble that could endanger his whole future.
Or is he? In its third chapter, the novel abruptly splits into two parallel narratives, each printed in a distinct font.
In the first version, a small-town reporter picks up the story of Chris' unusual mishap (the headline: "Whipped Cream Not Up to Snuff") and publishes his shame for all to see, including his mom. Before Chris knows what's happening, he's been packed off to California to stay with his hated dad, who won't pay his college tuition unless he undergoes drug treatment. His plans to spend the last summer in his small Ohio town with his two best friends are history.
In the second version of the story, the newspaper item never appears. Chris lies to his mom about his injury and proceeds with his summer as planned. While California Chris is cursing his miserable existence, Ohio Chris has all the luck. Or does he?
It's always fun to imagine the different ways a life could unfold from a key juncture, and Me Myself and Him is a savvy take on the Sliding Doors template. Gradually, California Chris and Ohio Chris switch places, the former's fortunes rising while the latter's go south. By the end, the perfect summer at home turns out to be anything but, while California Chris discovers possibilities that his doppelgänger can still only dream of.
Burlington writer Tebbetts, who coauthored the best-selling, movie-adapted Middle School series with James Patterson, has a fresh, witty voice that sounds like a teen, acne and all. Sometimes Chris' thoughts take the form of pie charts, flow charts or diagrams, always with funny results. One of his insights is a Venn diagram in which the statements "Dad is an asshole" and "So am I" overlap to produce "Trouble." "I knew this whole situation was a shit cake of my own making," Chris notes at another point. "Dad was just in charge of the frosting."
Chris' dad is a celebrated physics professor, so both Chrises indulge in periodic reflections on quantum mechanics, "infinite possible universes" and whether one version of himself could somehow influence another version. These speculations are ultimately less interesting, though, than the deft and realistic way in which Tebbetts handles the central dilemma posed by that Venn diagram: How do you deal with a parent who won't stop pressing your buttons?
Parents are difficult figures in YA books. When they're not absent or dead (as they often are) or downright evil, they almost have to be redeemable, because parents set the boundaries of a kid's universe. A traditional authorial strategy would be to show that Chris has misunderstood his dad or vice versa, then have them hug it out in an Instagram moment.
But Chris is old enough to face the fact that, while his dad is no Voldemort, he's also just not a hug-it-out guy (or an admit-he's-wrong guy). Instead of softening the father's portrayal, Tebbetts shows Chris reaching the tough adult realization that he, and not either of his parents, is responsible for his own happiness. And that's true in any universe.