A Review of Knox McCoy’s “The Wondering Years”
The School of Hard Knox
There has always been a book waiting to be written about God and pop culture. After all, there are areas where the sacred overlaps with the secular. Personally, I’ve always felt that if I had more of a brain for processing what pop culture means in the area of faith, I’d write a book that would at least partially answer how Kendrick Lamar can write a song about being a sinner and knowing that he’s going to sin again before asking not only for God to forgive him, but for his bitch to not get in the way of his vibe. (I guess telling his “bitch” not to kill his vibe is his sin???) This is why Knox McCoy’s The Wondering Years excited me. The promo blurb for the book intones that, yes, we can both love God and binge watch something on Netflix. The question I needed an answer to is “how?”
Well, it’s disappointing but The Wondering Years doesn’t really answer the how question. This is really one person’s memoir about growing up as an evangelical in the Southern USA. Pop culture is just a lens for Knox McCoy, said author, to view his faith. This means that there are no burning revelations about how certain artists fuse their faith with the broader world, or anything quite like that. No. Alas, we get stories about how the author got punched in the face as a kid, what that had to do with the Rocky franchise of movies, and maybe a bit of God talk. That’s it. The End. So disappointing.
Part of the problem is that, for most of this read, McCoy is not very revealing. A lot of this book is just needless prattle — mindless tangents, really — and could easily be cut to ribbons to be relevant. The other thing that’s equally annoying is that the author thinks he’s funny — he mentions that he loves to make people laugh in his bio at the end of the book, for one thing. The problem is is that, generally, people who think they’re funny and publicly announce this, frequently are not. Such is the case with how the author presents himself in The Wondering Years, which, as a book, is not hilarious. No, the book’s just plain boring and unfunny, and its laugh-o-meter is strikingly low.
The thing is, McCoy is also human and so when he talks about his dad’s cancer diagnosis in the very last chapter of the book, much of what he has to say sticks because it’s so personal. It’s as though the author can only bring himself to coherence when he talks about things that personally affect him in a huge, powerful way — leading me to wonder about the editing of this book. This chapter should have led the book and set the tone for what followed, not a story about being punched in the face. The latter? Not so memorable. The former? Extremely heart-tugging and mind expanding. McCoy has deep things to say about fatherhood and father-son relations. Maybe it would have been a downer, yes, but The Wondering Years could have used a shot of this kind of pathos early on.
In fact, the thing about this book is that it doesn’t have anything at all interesting to say about the intersection of faith and pop culture until the very end. The penultimate chapter of the book explains, and quite deftly, how Christianity is really the sidekick to pop culture in the broader view of the world rather than being the central, defining person in the narrative. What McCoy has to say about this is profound and insightful. Again, the book could have used something this insightful early on rather than just leading with a bunch of tired jokes and self-deprecation.
The other thing you need to know about McCoy is that he is a screenwriter of some sort — so some of this volume is written as though it is a screenplay. I suppose the effect would have been startling if it had been conservatively used, but McCoy practically turns to this device every other chapter or so. It’s jarring, it’s irritating and it’s ineffectual. If you took a drink every time that the author employed the use of screenplays in his text, you’d be pretty blotto by the end of the book. It’s basically an overused narrative device to cover up the fact that McCoy seemingly doesn’t have much to say.
How insightful is the book? Well, McCoy writes a whole chapter about being anti-The Simpsons as a kid. He then goes on to say that he’s only seen four episodes as an adult. Well, anyone can tell you that the show actually has a lot to say about religion — and not just Christianity — over the breadth of the show, so if McCoy actually watched the program a lot closer, he would know there’s some interesting stuff about faith there — even if this show was considered to be too profane for a younger version of himself. (He had an issue with Bart Simpson’s trademarked “Eat my shorts” quote as a kid.) Thus, there’s a lot of stuff that’s glossed over in The Wondering Years, and this book is largely all surface and not very poignant or profound. This is a book that has a lot of work to be done to it to bring it up to any exacting standards. There’s not enough God in it. There’s not enough pop culture in it, either — just a Reese’s Pieces trail of throwaway references, and not enough insight into what they mean. The Wondering Years has me wondering, my God, could I have written this book and done it a whole lot better? Once you start thinking stuff like that, all bets are off and what you have is a book that doesn’t overly satisfy.
Knox McCoy’s The Wondering Years: How Pop Culture Helped Me Answer Life’s Biggest Questions was published by Thomas Nelson on November 13, 2018.
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