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Wide Awake in America: The Gospel According to Larry … 20 years later

By L.A. Gabay

Great writing, be it about the past or the future, often applies to the present. It’s been two decades since identity-shielding Larry broke the Internet with his caring, daring, and solicitous sermons in Janet Tashjian’s Young Adult novel The Gospel According to Larry. The world may have changed since 2001, but people haven’t. YA literature brings many young people forward while it also takes adults back; reminding us of who we were or wanted to be when we were young.

Action and Activism

The Gospel According to Larry’s legacy of service, purpose, justice, and connection remains relevant and refreshingly renewed a year into a new pandemic normal. With many pausing to reflect and reassess what really matters, Larry continues to be a trusted voice in a world of uncertainty. With the 20th anniversary celebration of the book, it’s a fitting time to revisit and review its important place in YA literature.

In 2001, I was teaching English language arts at New York City’s Passages Academy, a school program for children going through the judicial system. Finding texts that appealed to the students with their often-difficult life circumstances was not always easy. My friend Jesse Eisenberg had just performed The Gospel According to Larry’s audio version and donated an entire class set to us. Tashjian’s story connected YA readers to an activist call to action—something that had been less pronounced within the genre. The Gospel According to Larry’s voyage of discovery had a slightly different aperture by taking the personal and making it political. Main character Josh “Larry” Swenson wants to rid the nation from wanton consumerism, overseas-labor exploitation, and environmental neglect, but he also spends his days stewing over the fact that the girl next door thinks of him only as a friend.

I haven’t heard a rant like that since Thoreau

In the book, Seventeen-year-old Josh Swenson is loner-philosopher who wants to make a difference in the world while trying to maintain his secret identity as the author of a Web site that is receiving national attention. He grew up as a strange and clever child who loved to learn new things, even if it meant isolation. His mom often said, “Go out and play or I’ll take away your homework.” He enjoyed spending time alone, filling notebooks with ideas and projects. He never met his real father who died of alcoholism before he was born. His mother provided a balanced foundation, supporting his quirky ways until she died from cancer shortly before the start of the novel. Josh is left to be raised by his workaholic advertising executive stepfather.

The book captures Josh’s easily detonated emotions of hurt, loss, loneliness, and longing. To become what he is meant to be—and be meaningful to others—he invents the alter-ego, “Larry.”

Josh/Larry is troubled by seemingly-conscienceless corporate capitalism and extreme materialism which, in his view, have unraveled the fabric of society. Rather than simply complain, he gets involved and even becomes the solution. He creates The Gospel According to Larry, a website devoted to anti-consumerism, and soon millions join him in his quest to be non-materialistic. Through his sermons, Larry encourages his readers to simplify and serve, and warns of the rapacious materialism that pervades our culture, disconnecting us from who we are. Larry implores his website visitors to outmaneuver the powerful forces that make us want to buy and spend.

Sermon #93: “Slip on your Gap jeans, your Nike T-shirt, your Reeboks – or maybe even your Cons if you think that makes you cool and ironic in a Kurt Cobain kind of way. Grab your Adidas backpack, ride to school on your Razor, drink your Poland Spring, eat your PowerBar, write a paper on your iMac, slip on your Ralph Lauren windbreaker, buy the latest CD from Tower, check the caller ID to see who’s on the phone, eat your Doritos, drink your Coke. Stare at the TV till you’re stupefied.

Is there any time of the day when we’re not being used and abused by the advertising companies?”

Larry contends that consumerism isn’t all bad, as it’s the basis of an economy that supports a workforce of billions of people. In fact, some of the more heartfelt moments of the book take place in Bloomingdales. But Larry sees profound inequality, and his concern is the increasing gap between the rich and poor. To fix it, he tries to bring conscience back into commerce, calling out businesses to focus not only on their shareholders, but also on their employees, customers, communities, and the planet.

What made Larry’s message so impactful back then and what makes his message so sustainable today is the awareness he has that to change the country he must change himself. “Once you connect honestly with yourself is when you can connect completely with others.” Thus, part of his spiritual decluttering is a material one that only allows himself to own 75 possessions at a time—including all clothes, school supplies, recreational equipment, computer, and even the key to his home. Inspired by Native Americans not wanting to leave too many “footprints” on the earth, everything he buys is a major decision. Could he live up to the responsibility of owning it, maintaining it, housing it? In other words, does he have to have it? There are photos of Larry’s prized, limited possessions scattered throughout the book to tease his identity and create further intrigue.

Tashjian’s writing summons ideals that are backed with empiricism and data. Her ability to articulate values and transmit visions into the characters can feel soothing. Like a yoga teacher encouraging her class to hold a difficult position for an extra thirty seconds, Tashjian’s high expectations of humankind invite us to breathe, remain strong, and keep on pushing forward until we get it right.

In the spirit of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Larry tries to navigate the stimulation of the outside world with the tranquility of his interior landscape. He aims to strike a balance of participating in this vibrant culture while also honoring his principals.

Footnote

I now teach at Judith S. Kaye, a last-chance high school for over-aged and under-credited students. Whether they are struggling readers or simply struggling in general, the hope is to increase students’ opportunities for literacy and meaningful interaction with books. The Gospel According to Larry has been a staple in my classroom now for twenty years because of its ability to draw my students into reading and doing. Specifically, it’s an accessible entrée into learning about activism via individual responsibly and community involvement. It has been used in critical conversations about social issues promoting civic engagement to foster youth involvement. Under this framework, Larry has assisted in students finding their voices through the understanding that participation is being useful to others in a sustainable way.

Part of the novel’s longevity lies in my students’ delightful response to the book’s trope, in which Tashjian offers a metafictional take on who exactly wrote the book. The Gospel According to Larry’s playful construct starts with a note to the reader: Tashjian yarns a scenario of her first meeting with Larry who gives her the manuscript in a supermarket parking lot while she is walking to her car. She expertly carries the trope out to the epilogue, where she and Larry meet up once again. Tashjian is the confidante’s character in the storyline whom Larry turns to get to his story told. Further breaking down convention, and providing another layer of intimacy (and humor) within the storyline, are Larry’s footnotes which allow the reader into his inner thoughts while being active in the scene. To add additional enjoyment, I still use the extremely theatrical audio version of the book, featuring Eisenberg and Tashjian.

Twenty years ago, Larry slowed down to look inside himself for answers and warned that,“we as humans were an endangered species and the predators that would lead to our demise were ourselves.” I am not sure that enough of us listened to him then, but we cannot go back or erase the past. All we can do is make peace with it, learn from it, and move on. The Gospel According to Larry has traveled well and, like all good travelers, Larry is all about communicating, adapting, and embracing the journey.

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The Gospel According to Larry

by Janet Tashjian

MacMillan Children’s Publishing Group $12.99

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L.A. Gabay is a doctor of Urban Education whose research on Juvenile Detention Education is documented in his book, I Hope I Don’t See You Tomorrow (2016). He teaches high school English in New York City, and his published works about education, incarceration, basketball and sneaker culture can be found in Slam Magazine, Bleacher Report, and many other publications. In 2016, the New York Times named him “A New Yorker” of the year.

I'm a writer, editor, and blogger. My fiction has appeared in CutBank, Carve, Sou'wester, and elsewhere and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. My articles and profiles appear in university magazines and other publications. I earned an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and am the associate editor of Parhelion Literary Magazine out of Richmond. An Ohio native, I'm at work on a novel and short stories set in the Rust Belt, and I hype Midwestern authors at my blog, Rust Belt Girl.

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