Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Rylander, Scott. The Fourth Stall. Walden Pond Press (an imprint of HarperCollins), 2011. 314 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-06-199496-8. This book is for grades 4 and up, or ages 9 and up, depending on reading level (3 1/2 stars out of 4).

There is something about gangsters and the gangster life that still intrigues us. From The Godfather through Goodfellas and culminating with The Sopranos, the illusion of glamour, camaraderie, and power has always uncomfortably accompanied what is by definition a rough, dangerous, amoral, and illegal lifestyle. I have no doubt that the average fan of the gangster genre does not think that the gangster life is for him, any more than a fan of Superman thinks she can fly outside of her dreams. However, vicarious lives do not require the baggage of reality, so it is fun to imagine ourselves as a Corleone or a Soprano living the fast life, attending high class parties and low class funerals, champagne, gowns, and beautiful people (along with copious amounts of blood) flowing like water from a seemingly endless tap. Although rookie author Scott Rylander has not resurrected all of the ambience or violence of the mafia, he has created, with The Fourth Stall, a funny and well-crafted tale of winners and losers, of elation and desperation, of loyalty and betrayal, and most importantly, of failure and redemption.

Although Christian “Mac” Barrett (nicknamed for the ever-resourceful MacGyver) is only in sixth grade, he seems to control his K-8 school. With his best friend Vince keeping the “books” and Joe for protection, Mac oversees his business from the fourth stall from the high window in the East Wing Boys’ bathroom. Anyone who needs a favor, service, or commodity can see Mac, and for the right price, Mac will deliver. Vince and Mac are die-hard Cubs fans, and their beloved losers are finally on the brink of the World Series. They are committed to buying game tickets with their fund. However, when a third grader named Fred comes to the fourth stall and warns Mac that the legendary student thug Staples is back in town, taking bets and fixing games all over school, Mac is compelled to provide both protection and a plan for removing the rough and dishonest Staples before he drives out the relatively benign Mac and Vince for good: “We couldn’t live like this. The only way to end this was to get Staples out of my school for good. We definitely needed to do more than simply protect Fred; we needed to take down Staples” (58). However, when Staples seems to know every move Mac and Vince make, the possibility of a traitor seems more and more likely. If Mac cannot figure out the leak in his organization and find a way of neutralizing Staples, he will be out of business forever, his school will fall under the thumb of a greedy, heartless thug, and he and Vince will never get to see the Cubs in the World Series.

Just as we are accustomed to the good cop-bad cop scenario from watching Kojak and Starsky and Hutch, we seem to tolerate the good thug-bad thug scenario just as well. I like Mac and Vince as the good thugs, even though they break the law, even though they seem to be underhanded at best, even though they manipulate others for their own benefit. One cannot blame the liquor store for turning people into alcoholics. The pint-sized Dons are only providing a service, albeit a shady one. Although there is some light violence in this novel, Mac and Vince are not fighters and they do not advocate violence; they have people for that. In fact, Mr. Rylander’s description of the Rogues’ Gallery who Mac and Vince hire to take out Staples’ Collector, Barnaby Willis, is the highlight of the novel. With names like iBully, Kitten, and Great White, this colorful cast of characters belongs in its own novel. I believe The Fourth Stall will appeal to mainly boys who are looking for something funny to read that does not have to have explosions every chapter; the action develops slowly but smartly. Like Jack Ferraiolo’s The Big Splash, Mr. Rylander’s debut effort is a highly stylized and well-constructed mystery that will leave readers wanting more adventures from the fourth stall from the high window.

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