Perks is a weird little book. It’s written as a series of letters from lead character Charlie, a quirky and potentially clinically depressed freshman who shortly into the school year befriends a group of decidedly cooler seniors, including brother-sister duo Patrick and Sam, the former openly gay (which, in a My So-Called Life sort of way, appears to be simultaneously brave and routine at their high school) and the latter the immediate object of Charlie’s bumbling affections. Over the course of the school year, Charlie experiences a series of teenage rites of passage: His first party, his first hookup, his first pot brownie, etc. In some situations, Charlie’s mildly autistic inability to read social cues comes across as endearing, while at other moments—such as when, during a game of truth or dare, he’s dared to kiss the prettiest girl in the room and goes for Sam instead of his girlfriend—Charlie fails miserably at being what every 15-year-old really wants to be in high school: at least normal enough to fit in with a group of friends.
There’s something very 1999 about Perks, and not just because I haven’t been concerned with the social minutiae of high school since then. It might be the noticeable lack of electronic devices—a modern-day Charlie would have spent hours stalking Sam on Facebook—but it might also be the lack of “millennials” in a broader sense. Everyone in Perks feels grounded: They play characters in weekly local performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, they do Secret Santa, they have PG-13 house parties where no one does body shots or tries to drive a car into a pool. The almost humdrum teenagers in Perks are woefully under-represented in 2013 America, which is ironic since MTV—bastion of tween evolution—was actually Perks’ publishing imprint all those many years ago.
Despite being mildly anachronistic, there’s a lot about Perks that still feels very honest and accurate. The book captures very well how momentous everything seemed at that age, when missing a party or alienating a friend was worth hours upon hours of hardcore moping. It also touches on some very difficult subjects: Although Patrick is openly gay, his secret relationship with a closeted peer explodes tragically, and a last-minute revelation suggests that Charlie himself might be the product of a seriously troubled childhood. And while I guess Perks is a young adult book (?) it doesn’t dumb down any emotional depth, or woo teenage readers with sparkly vampires and almost-sex scenes.