Merit Badges


By Kevin Fenton

The Short Take:

This coming-of-age-and-then-some novel follows a group of friends from a small Minnesota town through high school, college, and then more of life’s ups and downs. What sets this one apart from similar books is that it’s much more nuanced and focuses more on each individual’s growth (or lack there of) rather than their relationships. I liked that difference. Very much.

Why?

Even though the territory has been explored many times, this book has a very fresh feel. A lot of that is due to the richness of the writing style. Unexpected descriptive phrases and brief philosophical insights raise everything to a higher level. The characters aren’t the usual suspects, either. Well, at first you think they might be, but first-time-novelist Fenton brings unexpected characteristics, interesting vulnerabilities, and surprising set backs to enrich his portraits.

While it certainly contains the angst and alienation  you expect from a book that begins in the teenage years, Merit Badges presents a rounder, more realistic portrait of a small community and one group of young people it unleashes on the world.

Each chapter is titled like a Boy Scout merit badge and includes one requirement for earning that badge. I’m not sure this really added anything, but it didn’t hurt either. I think most readers would understand how the book’s title describes what happens in this novel without it.

The plot pulled me straight through in a very short time. I just wanted to know what would happen next. And, how can I not enjoy a book that uses the word “ghosty?”

A Little Plot:

A tight group of friends, all growing up within a few blocks of each other, finds high school changes their relationships and perspectives. When his father dies, Quint (ostensibly the central character), sinks into delinquency and drugs. Slow tries to become his family’s father figure when his dad moves out. Barb doesn’t understand why the group doesn’t relate to each other the same way anymore.

By turns amusing and touching, as well as highly nostalgic if your high school days were in the 70s, Merit Badges follows the separate paths these friends take over about 25 years. A lot happens, but it’s not ridiculous stuff. It’s more like real life.

Kevin Fenton has a website but it’s more about his career as an ad writer and creative director. In the interest of full disclosure, that describes me, too. But I don’t think that influenced my opinion. To visit his site, click here. There’s also a website just for this book, to visit that, click here.

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