Rats Saw God, 1996. RSG, his debut novel, seems to get all the attention; it's the one teachers will use in their classes if they do that sort of thing. And it's definitely a good book. It follows two timestreams: Steve York's senior year in San Diego, and his sophomore and junior years in Houston, when his life went horribly, terribly wrong. We get his first-person narration of the present; the story of Houston is his English project.
It took me fifty to eighty pages to really get into it, honestly. I was having trouble imagining these words coming out a seventeen-year-old boy's brain. And the narrative drive was...slow. It's carried along by the strength of the prose, whether or not something actually interesting is happening.
Another strength is best described by Chris Lynch, who gets a quote on the back of the book: "Rats Saw God does something special—it treats teenagers as if their lives are complex and interesting....Thomas brings to the party one more thing that YA lit can never have enough of: attitude." I never read a lot of YA lit, so I don't really know how much more complex and interesting Rob's characters are than the norm, but he does do a good job of making the characters people. Which is necessary since the basic story is nothing extraordinary, even though it has its quirks here and there. It's a kid in high school, doing high school things. So in that respect, I was a little disappointed and didn't see what all the hoopla was about. It was competently done, and I was satisfied with the way things ended up and were resolved, for the most part. One thing I really liked was how Steve would make throwaway references to things people had said to him in the past, and then later on, as we read about the past, we get the context of the scene. The narrative was pretty tightly held together, and I appreciated that.
Slave Day, 1997. Slave Day wins at novel, people. In contrast to RSG, I was hooked within about ten fucking pages. I mean, really, I was hooked before I even opened the damn book, because multiple perspectives rock my world. Slave Day follows seven students and one teacher at Robert E. Lee High School on Slave Day, a fundraiser auction in which students buy the Student Council members and volunteering teachers for one day. For one day, they are their slaves, as the name suggests.
The brilliant thing is all the characters have different agendas. Why are they participating? What plans do they have? How will their lives change on this fateful day? Seriously, I don't want to say anything more because it's best you know nothing at all going in. You get in all the characters' heads, and they all have distinct voices, and their storylines intersect like less than whoa, actually; Rob doesn't go overboard trying to twist all the different stories togeher. They coexist naturally and realistically, and they play off each other every now and then. And because the the entire book comprises a single day, the narrative has a sense of urgency that Rats Saw God lacked. I do have one minor quibble, though, similar to my complaint about Weevil's spy pen. Rob brings up a question about a certain character and then he never actually answers it. So maybe that is his M.O. after all, use an ending question to create suspense and intrigue but drop it like my logic class. Slaverat bastard.
Like Neptune High, Robert E. Lee feels like a real high school, living, breathing, populated with strong minor characters. You get the impression that there are other people with important lives besides the ones we read about. The high school in Rats Saw God never feels like that because of Steve's narrow focus. Slave Day is pretty awesome, folks. Check it out.
Doing Time: Notes from the Undergrad, 1997. I recommend reading Slave Day before this one (if you can't tell, I read them chronologically), because it's also set in Robert E. Lee High, and there are throwaway references to some of the characters and events of the book. One character even gets a story all to himself. I think this school is a creative gold mine for Rob, because this short story collection is really damn good, almost as good as Slave Day itself. Okay, that may be an exaggeration, since it's far less dense. But each story packs a wallop.
Doing Time follows ten students fulfilling their required two hundred hours of community service. Their assignments are quite varied, and each chooses his assignment for a specific reason. Be it good or bad. I was reminded of the praise for Rob's ability to treat teens as complex and interesting again. No one leaves his two hundred hours unchanged. Except maybe that one guy. Most of the stories have some kind of reveal, though it's not some sort of gimmicky plot twist but something organic that surprises both the reader and the character.
One warning: this book is depressing as shit. Seriously, Rob does not pull any punches with the cynical worldview. Some of these characters are awful, awful people, and they remain awful, awful people. It's not till the last few stories that you can start using the word "heartwarming."
Satellite Down, 1998. Satellite Down has a lot of potential, what with the parental conflicts and the exotic Hollywood setting. And Patrick is an interesting main character, in that he's a good stand-in for the audience as he discovers the ins and outs of Hollywood and Classroom Direct, the news show he gets to work on. For over two hundred pages, I was hooked on Patrick's journey, what he learns about the industry and how it works, and what he learns about himself and who he wants to be. Does he want to be defined by people's perceptions of him? I mean, for two hundred pages, it was giving Slave Day a run for its money in the Best Rob Thomas Novel competition.
And then in the last eighty pages it turns into a completely different book. All the narrative threads in play, all the burgeoning character development...it comes to a grinding halt, and Rob starts up on this new shit that hasn't exactly grown organically from the previous pages, and it's not that it's bad, it's that it belongs in another goddamn book. It's like the last third of Adaptation, the way the narrative falls apart. And it could have been so much better. Dammit.
Rob Thomas In-Jokes:
Green Thumb, 1999. This book is completely unlike his other books. For one, it's about a thirteen-year-old kid, much younger than his previous protagonists. For two, it's vaguely sci-fi. Boy genius goes to the Amazon to work on a rainforest project and discovers...things. The language is even more implausible than it was in Rats Saw God, since this is supposed to be a thirteen-year-old kid (Rob loves first-person, by the way; he uses nothing else), but he's also supposed to be a genius, so. Just run with it. It's a nice little ride, and the prose style feels very different from the previous books. It doesn't really feel like a Rob Thomas book. Although he does almost pull a Satellite Down and get caught up in other business for a whole long stretch where you wonder what happened to the book and the narrative flow and when will we get back to the story at hand. And something about the end really doesn't sit well with me, and I'll be happy to discuss it (and the rest of the books) in more detail in the comments, but please put a spoiler warning in your title.
All right then. Five books. One man. Was there some sort of theme running throughout them? One concept that seemed to pop up everywhere? Yes, there was, and it's so damn applicable to Veronica Mars:
Nothing is what it seems.
Obviously, to get into all the reasons why this fits would be spoilery, but it's almost anviliciously present in all five books. Characters are always having their assumptions shattered. They find out things about people they would not have expected. They find that people are much deeper than they imagined. There's always more to things than what's on the surface. And a very strong subset of this theme involves family. Characters very frequently make discoveries about their own family, and these in turn can often reflect on themselves. It's such a simple idea, but it's one Rob loves to play with, clearly.
In the last two books, an environmentalist/preservationist theme started to creep in, but I haven't seen it represented on VM yet.
I wonder if he'll ever write another book again. I'll read it, and nothing will be what it seems.