Sunday, June 3, 2007

Hail Caesar

Hail Caesar
Author: Thu-Huong Ha
Publisher: Scholastic/Push
Release Date: February 1, 2007

John "Caesar" Miller is the BMOC at his high school. His prowess in bed is legendary, and he's so irresistible, he can count close to a hundred girls who would know first hand exactly how good he is. He's good-looking, a basketball star, and well-enough off to drive a black Mercedes convertible, a gift from his widowed father for Caesar's seventeenth birthday. Guys - friends and enemies alike - all want to be him. In short, Caesar lives a charmed life.

And best of all, as far as he's concerned, Caesar truly doesn't care. Not about anyone or anything. Well, perhaps he does care about his two younger sisters. And he certainly cares what people think and say about him if it might damage his golden image. But as far as his future or real, meaningful relationships, Caesar can't be bothered.

Until he meets new girl in school, Eva. For some reason, Eva is the first person - male or female - who doesn't immediately fall for the notorious Caesar charm. He's at first angry, then intrigued, and then obsessed by this girl who refuses to fall in line with Caesar's view of himself. But as he gets to know Eva, Caesar is forced to see how very shallow his life actually is. All of the sudden, his ability to not care is stripped away, and Caesar's entire world is shifted out from beneath his feet.

Hail Caesar is a young adult novel told through Caesar's point of view. I had a love/hate relationship with this book that makes it hard to grade.
First and foremost, the protagonist of Hail Caesar is actually not a very likable person. He treats everyone around him like shit. Girls are no more than warm bodies to be conquered and left with as little fuss and muss as possible. He lives only to party, is completely narcissistic and ego-maniacal, and is concerned only with how things can service his needs. His aloofness and hyper-confidence are the very things that have put him on top of the social heap, but he's the kind of guy who seems as empty of genuine feeling as he would have to be to treat people the way he does. He's a first class jerk, and he must be as good-looking as he believes himself to be to actually get as many girls as he does. This guy is pretty much loathsome.

So perhaps the most surprising thing about this book is that I actually liked Caesar. Thu-Huong Ha writes him in such a way as to make me care about this particular asshole. I can't even put my finger on why. His treatment of his two younger sisters, especially his concern and protectiveness for thirteen year old Kelly as she enters his self-destructive world of drinking and drugging and sex, shows us that Caesar at least has the capacity to care if only he's given the right motivation to do so. And learning that his mother died when he was twelve gives us a pass to feel a bit sorry for him and to chalk his abominable treatment of others up to a lack of maternal influence during key formative years.

I've been trying to figure out why I would want to read about a jerky character who has only the slimmest of redeeming qualities. I suppose this is the supreme compliment to Ha's ability to create a compelling character. In the real world, I would stay as far away as possible from a person like Caesar, yet once in his world, I wanted to know what happened to him in the worst way.

Perhaps I kept reading to watch Caesar fall from his lofty tower. Not only does Eva openly tease Caesar and blatantly snub his attempts to charm her, but Caesar experiences for the first time in his life rejection by a girl he'd completely believed would never turn down his attentions. Watching him as he struggles to process this rejection, from trying to convince himself that the girl in question is clearly a bitch and unworthy of him to wanting to skip school so he doesn't have to face the whispers and questions about what happened and even to wondering how the girls will be tearing him apart during their locker room gossip sessions is both heartbreaking and satisfying in a Caesar-gets-his-comeuppance sort of way. As his confidence wavers, I began to wonder if I was reading a story about the toppling of an empire, the end of an era. And I was anxious to read about the fall-out, expecting it to be a hard lesson that in the end proves to be for the better.

Or perhaps I kept reading to watch Caesar come to care about someone, to experience genuine emotion for the first time in his life and see him change his evil ways. After her initial cold shoulder, Eva eventually does warm to Caesar, and the two of them begin the kind of relationship that is a first for him: a relationship with a girl that is not sexual. She challenges him, forcing him to think about things he'd never given thought to before. To question not only his beliefs but his very reasons for acting the way he does. Finally, I believed, Caesar had met a girl that would break through the aloof exterior and awaken the nice-guy that I hoped lived deep inside him. I wanted to watch Caesar really and truly fall in love.

Or, perhaps, I kept reading because Caesar is the guy in my own high school that I could never have, and this story - at long last - allowed me an insider's look at one of the Untouchables. I was getting a glimpse of what made him tick, what secrets he held that made him so darn irresistible. I wanted the mystery to be solved so that the power guys like him held would be diminished. I wanted to see the wizard behind the curtain and to find out that he was actually a lot more like me than I could have imagined.

Whatever the reason, I found myself unable to put the book down. I just had to know what happened to Caesar.

I did have some issues with this book. Some are technical and others regard substance.

First, I really struggled with Ha's dialogue style. Too often she failed to use any dialogue tags for either long stretches or when multiple characters were involved, leaving me completely baffled as to who was saying what. Since all of the key characters are teenagers with very similar, abbreviated speaking styles, the lack of dialogue tags became a huge handicap. Often I had to go back to the beginning and consciously track who was saying what. In some multiple character scenes, I never was able to figure out who was who when they were all conversing. While for the most part this did not frustrate me enough to send the book hurling at the wall, it was more than enough to pull me entirely out of the story.

And far too often the short-hand speech, which might mirror the way real teenagers do talk, caused me genuine confusion about what was happening in the story proper. Not only did it become tiresome to read, but nothing ever actually got said as far as I could tell. Without the body language and/or internal thoughts that might have appeared as diologue tags, I had no context in which to interpret the few words that were spoken and interrupted so often. What was being said made no sense to me, and I was left with a giant "Wha?"

For example, a very important conversation takes place between Eva and Caesar that pretty much has them defining their relationship. But in the end, I had no idea what they had decided, nor the reasons behind their decision because the dialogue was constantly interrupted, I was confused about who was saying what, and it was simply too much work to figure it all out.

Another problem I had with the story was an inordinate focus on the external environment. Caesar was constantly analyzing the darkness or the temperature or the sensations of water hitting his body. While some of this can give the novel a literary feeling, it damaged my ability to get lost in the story because I can't imagine that real teenage boys engage in such internal thoughts to that extreme. I couldn't forget that it was a female writing a boy's point of view, and this kept me always standing just on the edges of the story rather than feeling I truly was inside of Caesar's head. Granted, I'm not a teenage boy. Maybe they really do ruminate a lot on the sound of windshield wipers or the feeling of rain falling on their faces.

My final beef was the story's climax and ending. I can't say much without revealing major plot developments. However, I listed above some of the reasons I kept reading, and I don't know that any single one of these expectations was met. I felt very little closure by the end, like both Caesar and I had been through a lot without having come to any great revelations or changes, leaving us both hanging kind of useless in the breeze. Perhaps that was Ha's intent. Perhaps she was trying to give the reader the same sense of uncertainty that Caesar was experiencing. If that was her goal, she succeeded. But as a reader, I felt somewhat cheated.

In the end, this book proved to be a study in paradoxes. I couldn't put it down, but I was left frustrated. I liked the insider's view I was given, but I found it didn't ring true to what I imagine someone like Caesar would really be thinking. I thought Caesar was a big jerk, but I wanted him to find love and happiness. I liked the book, but I don't want to read it again.

I guess in the end, the Caesar charm wasn't quite enough for me to consider this book an unqualified keeper. To say I was disappointed would be a bit dramatic. Rather, I was left feeling...unfulfilled. Much like Caesar as a person, I found this story to have a lot of flashy bravado on the outside but ultimately not much of substance on the inside.

Rating: a qualified Couldn't put it down


Anonymous said...

i like the book too. i wasnt able to stop reading it. but there was alot of usolved stuff that needed to be solved. and wat happened too caesar after that. just makes you wonder.

Anonymous said...

the book sounds good i never read the book and i would like to read it the cover and the book summery looks good i will teel u if i like it or not i hope that i will like it

Anonymous said...

I havent read the whole book yet but till now its one of the best book i have ever read. But the summaryup here says that the ending is not very good.I hope you are wrong as i wantthe book to have a better ending than the summary tells

nikebear said...

I love this book with my heart but the ending sink my heart and my head was filled with more question than answers. I was angry because I didn't really get it. I had all this prediction that Caesar was going to get the girl and they were going to have some big fairytale ending but turns out they were both confused. I couldn't get the fact if I was happy or mad that they didn't get together. In a way, I am happy that even though they didn't get together she changes him and he would be alright.The ending left me so angry that I search up the author and see if she wrote a second book and she didn't and I was devasted because I wanted to see what happen to him.