Chasing the Bear: A Young Spenser Novel by Robert B. Parker (2009)
Spenser (no first name) is the Boston P.I. featured in 40 novels by Robert B. Parker, as well as six (and counting?) novels by Ace Atkins, who continued the series after Parker's death in 2010. As the subtitle hints, Chasing the Bear may have been planned as the first in a series of 'Young Spenser" books (perhaps along the the lines of the "Young Jack" and "Jack: The Early Years" books F. Paul Wilson wrote about his protagonist, Repairman Jack), but the author never go around to writing more. It's just as well.
Parker may have a lot of faults as a writer and the Spenser books can be extremely irritating (I should know, having finally finished the entire Spenser oeuvre this week), but the books are readable and entertaining. Thirty-four years after publishing his first novel, Parker branched out into YA fiction, first with Edenville Owls (a sports novel), followed by 2008's The Boxer and the Spy (about teenagers and the drug scene), and finally with this one. I found Edenville Owls to be forgettable; The Boxer and the Spy to be a fairly decent read; and this one...?
Chasing the Bear has a lot going for it and a good deal against it. In it Spenser is 14-years-old, going on 15, and is being raised by his father and his mother's two brothers (Spenser's mother died in childbirth). The setting, although never spelled out in the book, is Wyoming. The three adults raising him are trying to instill in the boy what it means to be a man and why one should never shirk responsibility. These lessons form the basis of the adult Spenser's code of honor and this book uses them like a trudgeon. (Also, the linking material in this book has the adult Spenser reminiscing about his youth to the annoyingly perfect Susan Silverman, the love of his life. I truly believe that every reader of the Spenser books must have asked him(or her)self, Why? Anyway, Susan reinforces Spenser's worldview with pithy psychological insights about how these experiences worked to form the adult Spenser.)
Back to young Spencer. His friend Jeannie comes from an abusive home. Her mother had finally divorced her drunken father, which the man did not appreciate. Spencer sees the father's truck going down the rode and Jeannie is in the passenger seat, panicked and mouthing, "Help. Help me." Going to the authorities would waste time and allow Jeannie's father to get away, so Spenser follows the truck on his bicycle. After a bit of harrowing derring-do, young Spenser rescues Jeannie. She is so grateful she falls for him. He declines her advances because 1) he doesn't know what to do, 2) he only wants to be friends with her, and 3) even at this young age, he subconsciously knows that he is seeking his soulmate Susan.
So Jeannie agrees to just be friends, while remaining hopeful that Spenser's gonads will one day allow them to go beyond that. Jeannie has a friend in school -- a quiet Mexican boy -- who is being bullied by the bigger kids, including some of the white kids on Spenser's football team. Spencer, quixotic from the git-go, agrees to help stop the bullying. There's more preaching on what it means to be a man. (For one thing, being a man doesn't include bigotry -- thus paving the way for Spenser's later friendship with characters like Hawk, Chollo, Lee Farrell, and others.)
So there's a heavy load of preaching, not much action, and the exasperating Susan, yet somehow Parker makes it all readable -- as he has done with every piece of fiction he has written*
*That's a lie. It should read: "with every piece of fiction he has written with the sole exception being 1983's nauseating Love and Glory." When waterboarding didn't work at Abu Ghraib, they gave the prisoners copies of Love and Glory. That's how bad that novel is!