Janet Tashjian's Larry and the Meaning of Life (2008) is her third book about Josh Swenson, a.k.a. "Larry". In the first book, The Gospel According to Larry (2001), super-bright teen Josh is startled when his vehement anti-consumerism blog gains a large cult following and more momentum than he ever could have imagined. In Vote for Larry (2004), Josh realizes that he can perhaps channel his followers' energy and enthusiasm into turning out young voters for the 2004 presidential election. Naturally, the original plan gets away from him, and before he knows it, he's a serious contender for the office of President of the United States, running as an independent against the unnamed Democratic and Republican candidates. (The author deals with the minimum age requirement in a way that isn't really believable, but I can't quibble because I certainly can't think of a better way to handle it.)
Both of these books were refreshing in their message and in Josh's unique voice, and Vote for Larry was particularly gorgeous in its timeliness and in Larry's (and presumably Tashjian's) sharp criticism of both political parties' inertia and shenanigans. I mean, I wanted this eighteen-year-old kid to be President! I was therefore very much looking forward to this new book, simply to see what new antics our friend may have gotten up to. Before I go on, though, let me note this: because there is simply no way to discuss Larry and the Meaning of Life in any significant way without revealing important elements, please be aware that the rest of this post (behind the cut) contains major spoilers.
First of all, and perhaps not surprisingly, there's an inherent problem which I should have anticipated: how do you top your teenage narrator actually running for President and making a huge impact doing so? In my mind, the author got it right in one sense: you don't try to top it. You don't try to have the kid take over the U.N. or lead a utopian colony to the moon, you simply go in a different direction. Unfortunately, the direction Tashjian chose simply didn't work for me.
The book starts off as Josh concludes a fruitless eight-month search for Janine, the girlfriend who left him when he wrongly accused her of sabotaging his political campaign. Janine is not to be found, however, so Josh returns to mope around his stepfather Peter's house, waiting until it's time to leave for Princeton University in January.
During one of his usual forays seeking the solitude of Walden Pond, Josh encounters a mysterious self-proclaimed guru who offers to let Josh join, for a hefty fee, his self-enlightenment group, which, by the way, happens to include Janine. Josh is suspicious but desperate, both to win Janine back and to find some new direction in his life.
And then things just get weird. Is Gus a scam artist or isn't he? Is he just looking to make money from naive hippie wannabees, or is there a more sinister purpose afoot? Betagold, Josh's arch nemesis from the first two books, shows up looking for a kidney donation, and Josh gives her a kidney in order to protect Janine because Gus has been putting some slimy moves on her (as though that makes sense). A horrific string of events leads to Janine's beloved dog being euthanized by an overzealous park ranger after he arrests Josh, whose Princeton scholarship is then rescinded. But that's nothing: Josh uncovers a possible terrorist/landmine plot, but the FBI thinks he's crying wolf, and Peter has decided he's had enough and wants Josh out of his life.
Enough, already! I could not for the life of me figure out what was going on in this book. That can sometimes be OK, but it turned out that everything, including the dead dog and the kidney donation, was part of a big hoax perpetrated by Beth (love interest from book one), Peter, and Janine, all to snap Josh out of his funk. To make the plan work, they use a cast of a few dozen, including several drama students from Beth's nearby Brown University. They give Josh Valium (um, highly unethical and illegal!) to make him think he's donated a kidney. And even though that might work, I don't believe they could fake his arrest and a night in jail!
In any case, whether or not they could pull it off: it's not OK. It's the Michael Douglas/Sean Penn movie The Game, and I felt unfairly manipulated and let down. In my mind, no amount of "Josh funk" (which consisted primarily of aimlessly watching TV) could possibly justify the hell that Josh's closest friends and family put him through (not to mention the actual crime of giving Josh a controlled drug, Valium, in order to make him think he'd donated a kidney). An attempt at justification is made in the form of a letter from Josh's mother to Peter shortly before her death; the letter states that Josh is extra bright and easily bored, will struggle after her death, and they'll need to (in so many words) snap him out of it. The story ends with Josh bowled over but not mad because, wow, he's been mentally stimulated and now has new and interesting things to think about. (Actually, I suppose that the fact that Josh faked his own death at the end of the first book, because he was completely overwhelmed by his own notoriety, means that Beth and Peter do actually have the right to some payback, but jeez!)
To make matters worse, Josh still does not know if he has a future with either Beth or Janine, which is just fine at his age, except that I no longer care about this outcome nearly as much as I did at the end of the second book. I was also troubled because almost no attention was given to the fact that Josh would still be a global household name less than a year after he almost became the President of the United States. He would not be able to go anywhere without being constantly recognized, and it seems likely journalists would still be keeping tabs on him, but it's as though the election never happened.
All of this said, within the context of my disappointment, I did continue to enjoy Tashjian's writing style, and as always I agree with much of what Josh has to say. I also note that authors of successful books are under tremendous pressure to make sequels different but not too different, and it can be a real catch-22. For myself, I really would have preferred if Josh had joined the Peace Corps or something, or had gone back to his anti-consumerism message in some slightly new way.
Ah well, you can't win 'em all. And lest I sound more harsh than I want to, I would definitely read another book in this series. Especially considering our current economy, our fictional Josh would certainly have something meaningful to say about the roller coaster that the next few years are sure to bring.