The Minus-One Club by Kekla Magoon
At first, I doubted that I would review this book. There are multiple issues going on (sometimes it seems like too much.) It’s heavy. It’s messy. It’s unresolved. However, it turns out that The Minus-One Club is not a book I could read and not say something about, because, in the right hands, it has the potential to be a life saver.
It was the recognition of Kekla Magoon as an award-winning YA author, the unique premise, and the retro-looking cover (including an image of the protagonist and random pieces of something) that drew me to this book. As it turns out, the random pieces of something on the cover are shards of glass, representing the windshield that shattered when Kermit Sanders’ sister was hit head-on by a drunk driver, and his own life that was shattered when she died. Kermit’s older sister Sheila had been his biggest advocate and the only person he was out to about his feelings for other boys.
One day Kermit finds a mysterious note on his school locker, signed “-1,” inviting him to join a clandestine group of other students who have also lost a person of great significance. The group is a support system of sorts, and the vow is to be there for one another, no matter what. It so happens that Matt, the only openly gay student in the school and Kermit’s secret heartthrob, is also in the group, having lost his mom to cancer. Matt’s ebullient personality is a breath of fresh air to Kermit, and the two begin spending time together. Kermit is amazed at how Matt seems to have everything together. However, as the two grow more intimate, Kermit beings to see the cracks in Matt’s perfect veneer. It comes to light that he is being abused by a bully at school. He has a father who works from home yet is aloof and absent in Matt’s life. And he is only able to talk about difficult things, including his mom’s death, after he has had a few drinks.
The moments of tenderness between Kermit and Matt provide levity in this otherwise weighty novel. However, as their relationship grows, Kermit becomes increasingly wary of Matt’s drinking and his inability to talk about important things while sober. Things culminate when, one day, Kermit receives an alarming text from Matt that sounds like a goodbye. Matt has gone to the cliff at the state park where he has taken Kermit hang gliding, is drunk, and has taken his father’s prescription medication. In a heart wrenching scene, Kermit pleads with Matt to wait for him to get there. As Kermit cannot drive, he “activates” the minus-one club, and they rush together to the cliff. Luckily, they reach Matt in time to convince him not to take his life. Matt is taken to the hospital and eventually receives psychiatric care.
The novel is made up of very short chapters, many less than one page in length. At first, I felt like this would diminish the depth of the novel. But that is not the case. What one ends up with is the feeling of seeing a series of powerful vignettes. Interspersed are “dream chapters,” cleverly printed on a darker shade of paper. These are Kermit’s dreams, in which his sister Sheila appears to him, always giving him some sort of advice in her snarky way. There are also “then chapters” followed by “now chapters,” which are Kermit’s memories of how things were when his sister was alive versus how things are now.
One thing worthy of mention is how the novel faces head-on the issue of faith and sexual identity. Kermit’s family is deeply religious and their church is important to them. It has played a big role in Kermit’s life. In fact, he has his favorite bible verses framed and on his bedroom wall. However, it is clear that the messages of condemnation at his conservative church has caused a degree of doubt and self-loathing. Matt is not dismissive of Kermit’s faith, and actually attends with him a couple of times. He mentions at one point that he wishes he could take Kermit sometime to the church that his mother used to attend, where things are very different and “everyone is totally accepted for who they love.”
Not everything is wrapped up with a nice bow at the end of this novel. Kermit, although he has come out to the other members of the minus-one club, has not managed to find the courage to confide in his parents, for fear of their reaction. The future of the relationship between Kermit and Matt is uncertain. It is suggested that Matt’s journey to mental health will take time.
The biggest kudos of all go to the author’s note at the end. It includes a list of no less than eleven organizations that exist to help anyone dealing with issues of grief, suicidal ideation, or coming out. This is what elevates The Minus-One Club from simply a well written novel to a noteworthy work that strives to do real good in the world.
Reviewed by Bryan Latimer