How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets by Garth Stein
I read How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets* because I was sick of the usual stuff I read and remembered how much I loved (loved! And I don’t care what the snobs think or say because dogs) The Art of Racing in the Rain*. So, yeah, I felt like reading something more like literary fiction.
Not only do you get to ride alongside a grunge guitar godlet packed into a mystery, a love story, a great book that was spurned by the publishing industry, and a road of trials told in the first person, but you get what literature does best, what fiction can do that essay cannot: you learn through vicarious experience.
This review has one key thing in common with two others, John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down and Alex White’s Every Mountain Made Low: you experience the intense suffering of a serious, invisible disorder and learn from it.
In this case, you share Evan’s experience with epilepsy; and not just epilepsy, but epilepsy that the sufferer brought upon himself. By having Evan cause his own epilepsy through an act of stupidity, Garth Stein removed a big source of sympathy. How often do you see an author take a risk like that? We spend hours trying to come up with ways to make characters sympathetic to readers; Stein swung the other way and nailed it.
We hang on the threat that Evan could have a seizure at any minute with the understanding that he needs a few hits of ganja to stave it off and that the ganja offends not just his family but the law.
As a migraine sufferer (a migraineur, if you will) I started out feeling empathy for the constant threat poised over Evan’s head. Chopper, my villain, in The Sensory Deception* suffered migraines. Unlike Stein, I gave Chopper migraines for two reasons: one, to show his pain, make him a bit sympathetic even though he did rotten things, and two, to show that he was tough and had a high pain threshold.
I love watching writers break the rules and, if you read it, you’ll see how Stein used a brilliant plot twist to both blame Evan for his own malady and make him an unappreciated hero. Very solid work.
But there’s another reason for writers to love this book: the publishing industry HATED IT. The end notes include an interview with the publisher. How Evan Broke His Head was rejected by dozens of agents and publishers. It languished for years, along with Garth Stein’s career, until an inexperienced acquisition editor picked it up, read it, and lacked the publishing experience that would have made him recognize that Stein had broken the rule of tying readers to characters through sympathy — cardinal sin, he should have held it up by two fingers and bellowed, “Get this tawdry manuscript off of my desk!” Instead he loved the book not in spite of the fact that he broke the rule, but how he broke it. Awesome schadenfreude for all of us.
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*Links to books in this article marked with an asterisk are “affiliate links” which means that I get a small commission from Amazon if you choose to buy the book from them (it doesn’t affect the price you pay). I do not consider the links an endorsement of Amazon — shop according to your principles! That said, I recognize irony when I implement it, but without the tiny extra income generated by affiliate links these reviews would not be produced because when I dove into this racket that we call being a novelist, I vowed that I would never write for free. Damn it!
And finally, if you’d like to receive my famous** Ransom’s Notes, sign up here and, if you ask, I will provide you a free copy of my novel The 99% Solution* because, in the spirit of The 99%, no one will be denied their right to read it for lack of material wealth! (**they’re not really famous).