IF HOLDEN CAULFIELD were growing up today, he might sound like Justin Cobb, the Ritalin-popping teenager who skulks through Walter Kirn's third novel, Thumbsucker. Whereas Salinger's antihero used cynicism to expose phonies, Justin is a true child of the modern era, where phonies are a given and irony and pills are a standard buffer against life's nagging malaise. Like Catcher in the Rye, Kirn's novel grabs you with its unmistakably teenage voice--arrogant and self-absorbed, yet observant enough to let you know he's not missing anything. But unlike Salinger's work, Kirn's novel often looks for comedy in the true pain of adolescence--the self-doubt, the fighting with parents, the reckoning with adult truths--trading anguish for a laugh.
The laughing begins with Thumbsucker's central conceit: Justin has a thumb-sucking habit. To get rid of it, his father sends him to a dentist who tries to cure him with hypnosis, a cayenne-based powder called Suk-No-Mor, and, finally (and successfully), with Ritalin. Afterward Justin throws himself into new activities (fly-fishing and debating) and burns through a dazzling array of over-the-counter drugs (codeine cough syrup, decongestants, coffee) and illegal substances (cigarettes and ungodly amounts of marijuana) to fill his thumbless void. Along the way Justin coaxes girls to take their shirts off, attempts to buy booze from the local wino, and has moments of drug-induced debating brilliance.
In spite of the haze he spreads around him, Justin can't help noticing how screwed up his parents Mike and Audrey truly are. His father, a former football player who would have gone pro were it not for a knee injury, is mildly depressed and alienated from the family, whom he calls "you people." His mother, a beauty who works as a nurse, has the aura of someone who has compromised her dreams for something a little less shiny. When his former football coach falls ill, Mike begins singing songs, calling himself the Footprint Man, and later tries to run away into the mountains to die. Meanwhile, Audrey takes on a night shift at a local substance-abuse home where celebrities come to breathe the wholesome Midwestern air.
Like a Simpsons episode, the plot of Thumbsucker tacks this way and that, detouring for a scene to follow an often hilarious subplot. Yet there is a darker side to Justin's antics, and undercurrents of sadness in his story. Ultimately, Kirn doesn't pursue that path to the same haunting ends that Salinger did--but that may say more about modern youth than about any particular book.