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the first part last

29 march 2012

Angela Johnson's Printz-Award-winning novel The First Part Last is intricately constructed and has many nice touches. I came away disappointed in its overall rhetoric, but I sense that its heart is in the right place. Young Adult literature seems to be making a slow, asymptotic progress toward a world where young adults can just move joyfully into full adulthood. I suppose that world doesn't exist in real life, so why should fiction promise something more optimistic? Meanwhile, there are moments of real joy in The First Part Last, despite its overarching gloom and its monitory sourness. It seems right to accentuate the positive in reviewing it.

First, to Johnson's narrative skill. The First Part Last is told in an elegant, precisely balanced pair of narratives: "Now" and "Then." Then starts only a few months before Now, and when Then runs its course, it's only a few days before Now begins. The reader becomes highly invested in knowing how Then leads to Now – even more than in learning how "Now" will turn out. In a way, this is the classic structure of the detective story. Though there's no crime in The First Part Last, there is a mystery of sorts, and you want to know its solution.

Bobby, the narrator, is a new father "Now." He's a new single teenage father, in itself enough of a wrinkle on the usual Young Adult scenario to gain the reader's notice. The brightest aspects of the book show Bobby's love for his infant daughter Feather. At times Bobby gets strung out by parenting. At times he starts to resent all the duties. At times he suffers from sleep deprivation. These are plausible details, and they serve to connect him to adult parents. Some things about fatherhood aren't really a function of a father's age.

But Bobby is also a clueless parent. He lives with his mother, who is trying the tough-love approach to make Bobby a responsible father, but Bobby goes off the rails sometimes. In a scene that feels artificial, Bobby goes off and spraypaints himself a graffiti mural in a daylong session, prompting a trip to the police station and a general freaking-out from the adults who have been left with Feather. Johnson here underlines one of the novel's morals: kids aren't the ideal caretakers for kids. (Of course, it's not like adult dads never flake off for the adult equivalent of a lost graffiti day; but The First Part Last draws a severe line between its steely adults and its flaky teens.)

But Feather has few other options. In another heavy-handed turn of events, "Then," her mother Nia has succumbed to a stroke while delivering her, and is in a permanent vegetative coma. Here the action savors of dire things that happen to loose women in 19th-century novels; if anything Nia's stroke is more melodramatic than anything that happens to Zola's cast of fallen women in the Rougon-Macquart novels.

The First Part Last is thus at odds with itself. It wants to offer positive role models for teen single parents, but if it's too good at its job, teen readers will not be sufficiently discouraged from parenthood.

But I said I'd accentuate the good things, and there are many. The First Part Last is a suspenseful, sensitive novel that evokes a believable world (middle-class African-American family and friends in early 21st-century Manhattan). Quite apart from her rhetoric, Angela Johnson has a story to tell, and she tells it with drive and skill.

Johnson, Angela. The First Part Last. 2003. New York: Simon Pulse [Simon & Schuster], 2005.