Do critics not read young adult novels? I suspect not. Because the rave reviews of Tschick all seem to say that's what it is - a great YA title that adults will enjoy just as much, yadda yadda yadda.
Adults will indeed enjoy Tschick. Younger readers, though, are used to stronger stuff. Here's the story: neglected rich-kid Maik is having a dull and teenagerly time of it - unrequited crush, parents are crap, no mates, etc. Enter neglected poor-kid Tschick, the new boy in class and Russian to boot. Tschick steals a Lada and off they go, careening around the German countryside during the summer holidays and having adventures until everything goes pear-shaped.
Now the critics, being well-read and all that, were just as quick as me to spot the Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn parallels. And some of them read The Catcher in the Rye into it too - though I didn't. I'm not sure whether that's because I've blanked out all memory of the book or because critics just love comparing any old thing to The Catcher in the Rye. That's fine, go ahead Mr Herrndorf, it's fun to spot the references and all that - but it's not going to score you any points with fourteen-year-old readers.
To get some more nit-picking over and done with, there are several other things that make the novel maybe not unsuitable but at least atypical for teenage fiction. To start with, the first main section takes place at a Gymnasium in Berlin-Marzahn. But I found this part of the book muddled - how old are the kids when, why are there dumb kids in the class, and why does one character move to the edge of Berlin when they're already surrounded by fields right out in Marzahn? It all suggested a lack of familiarity with the world of German high schools. Which probably doesn't go down too well with readers who spend all day at German high schools.
Secondly, there's not enough sex. There's no sex at all. In fact one character actually turns down sex. I've read a lot of YA fiction in the past year or so because it's one of the things I translate. So I read it in English for the tone and in German too. And every single piece of teenage fiction I've read recently has featured at least one sex scene - not necessarily Harold Robbins-style, but it's definitely a biggie. Because teenagers are obsessed with sex. Don't you remember? You were too. Yes, even more than you are now.
And thirdly, there's not enough action. I mean, there's plenty of action - car-stealing, accidents, shooting incidents, police chases, all that kind of thing. But Herrndorf tells his story too subtly. His taste and his humour are too grown up. So the police chase on the motorway is pretty tame because that's the way things usually are - the two boys end up being chauffeured away from their wrecked car in a top-whack BMW by a terribly nice but dim speech therapist, while the police creep along miles behind in their slower car. Herrndorf prefers playing for laughs and constructing clever plot loops to going for that instant adrenaline rush you get in a lot of books for young adults.
So if you're looking for a present for a teenage nephew, forget Tschick and go for Cory Doctorow, or straight to the DVD department.
But if you want to read a good book, you could get it for yourself. Because that last point is what makes the novel so endearing. The "road movie" part is delightfully meandering, feasting on the bizarre characters Maik and Tschick come across - a group of cycling aristocrats, a female Stig of the Dump, an ancient trigger-happy communist. So we jump from one odd situation to the next. After a while I stopped expecting the dramatic development we know from the beginning is coming, and started looking forward to the next absurdity. Herrndorf's humour, which I personally failed to get in his short stories, isn't the laugh-out-loud kind. But it's there, and it makes the rather bumbling characters and the novel as a whole more likeable.
Herrndorf writes well, with an eye for detail in his settings that I enjoyed. His narrator Maik has a voice of his own but doesn't use the kind of down-with-the-kids slang that feels just patronising. I was even willing to forgive Herrndorf for the conciliatory ending and the excruciatingly hip modern character-twist, which I thought wasn't well-prepared at all. The narrator may not have been surprised, but my disbelief came severely un-suspended at this point. But you know, coming of age, friendship, rebellion - it's all in there.
The novel's being heralded as the odd one out on the shortlist for this year's Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair. It is, and in a good way. It's a great lightweight read for adults. It would translate very nicely, perhaps doing as well as Alina Bronsky's pretend YA novel Broken Glass Park has in the States. Look out for a short story by Herrndorf (trans. Susan Bernofsky) in the next issue of Verse Magazine. And the book won the online poll for the award (although I was reminded of Kathrin Passig winning the audience vote at the Bachmann Prize and the hoo-ha over the Guardian's Not the Booker Prize). I don't think it'll get the proper award though - the combined competition from heavyweights Arno Geiger and Peter Stamm, not to mention my unexpected favourite, the up-and-coming bantamweight Clemens J. Setz, is too much.