Bad Boys

"GODDAM, I'D LIKE to kick some ass," says Triple E, 16-year-old car thief, boxer, rebel and hero of Duff Brenna's electric third novel, Too Cool (Doubleday). Elbert Earl Evans, as he's formally known, is one of the lost boys, grown hard and bone-bad from too many street fights and too many long nights of booze and dope. According to his parents and teachers, Triple E is beyond redemption. Yet, he's also intelligent and undeniably charismatic; he even shows traces of a stubborn innocence in his reckless adolescent love for girlfriend Jeanne Windriver. Ultimately, Triple E is a raging bunch of contradictions.

It's the genuine complexity of the main character that sustains Too Cool. As Triple E roars toward destiny in a whirlwind of ecstatic violence, it's difficult not to care where both he and the novel end. Brenna skillfully balances sympathy for his character with vivid descriptions of the wrecked cars, dead animals and shattered faces left in Triple E's wake.

Beyond the narrative force of its protagonist, Too Cool is a funny, frightening trip. After a fierce brawl with his father and a breathless criminal rampage land Triple E in Goodpasture Correctional Facility, he finds temporary refuge in Kafka and in the pure physical release of boxing. He escapes, steals a car, and rockets with Jeanne into the frozen Colorado wilderness. As night falls and the temperature drops, Triple E ricochets through a surreal world of memory and hallucinations in which he confronts the powerful conflicting impulses that compel him.

It's a familiar American fable: The rebellious hero embarks on an outward journey that ultimately turns introspective and ends in personal redemption. Nevertheless, Brenna is too skilled and his characterizations too rich to produce a conventional coming-of-age story. He leaves Triple E boxing his own shadow against the darkening walls of an abandoned house, the embodiment of delirious, defiant youth, burning bright and burning out. In the end, Triple E wonders if it is time to make peace with the world and with himself: Too Cool is too honest to offer easy redemption.

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