Cover image for Thumbsucker : a novel
Thumbsucker : a novel
Kirn, Walter, 1962-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Broadway Books, [1999]

Physical Description:
300 pages ; 21 cm
Reading Level:
770 Lexile.
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR UG 4.9 10.0 62804.

Reading Counts RC High School 4.9 15 Quiz: 37750 Guided reading level: NR.
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This eighties-centric, Ritalin-fueled, pitch-perfect comic novel by a writer to watch brings energy and originality to the classic Midwestern coming-of-age story.Meet Justin Cobb, "the King Kong of oral obsessives" (as his dentist dubs him) and the most appealingly bright and screwed-up fictional adolescent since Holden Caulfield donned his hunter's cap. For years, no remedy--not orthodontia, not the escalating threats of his father, Mike, a washed-out linebacker turned sporting goods entrepreneur, not the noxious cayenne pepper-based Suk-No-Mor--can cure Justin's thumbsucking habit.Then a course of hypnosis seemingly does the trick, but true to the conservation of neurotic energy, the problem doesn't so much disappear as relocate. Sex, substance abuse, speech team, fly-fishing, honest work, even Mormonism--Justin throws himself into each pursuit with a hyperactive energy that even his daily Ritalin dose does little to blunt.Each time, however, he discovers that there is no escaping the unruly imperatives of his self and the confines of his deeply eccentric family. The only "cure" for the adolescent condition is time and distance.Always funny, sometimes hilariously so, occasionally poignant, and even disturbing, deeply wise on the vexed subject of fathers and sons, Walter Kirn's Thumbsucker is an utterly fresh and all-American take on the painful process of growing up.

Author Notes

Walter Kirn (born 1962) is an American novelist, literary critic, and essayist. He graduated from princeton University in 1983. Kirn is the author of eight books, including Up in the Air, which was made into a movie starring George Clooney, and Blood Will Out, a memoir of his friendship with the imposter and convicted murderer, Clark Rockefeller. he has also reviewed books for New York Magazine and has written for The New York Times Book Review and New York Times Sunday Magazine, and is a contributing editor of Time magazine. In addition to teaching nonfiction writing at the University of Montana, Kirn was the 2008-09 Vare Nonfiction Writer in Residence at the University of Chicago.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Dark and witty, novelist (She Needed Me) and book critic Kirn's narrative of demoralized 1980s suburbia chronicles the coming-of-age of Justin Cobb, a 14-year-old who develops a series of addictions after his dentist-cum-therapist breaks his thumb-sucking habit. This premise is fortified by Kirn's uncommonly thoughtful treatment of Justin's humorously dysfunctional familyÄhis sports-obsessed father calls his family "you people"; his beloved, increasingly New Age mother is a nurse at a celebrity rehab clinic; his younger brother, Joel, quietly cultivates a fetish for expensive designer clothing. Only Justin seems to realize how close his family is to emotional collapse. Unable to bear the weight of saving them himself, he cleverly engineers their conversion to Mormonism. Thankfully, their new-found spiritualism does nothing to stifle Justin's iconoclastic opportunism, which keeps the story bouncing along to its conclusion. Kirn's bildungsroman contains all the genre's essential themes (sexual exploration, intellectual flowering, etc.) but his plotting subverts any clich‚d revelations. When Justin joins his high school speech team, his gift for persuasion, and a new addiction to decongestants, makes him cocky, but he is quickly deflated by his melancholy speech coach. Many other neat reversals of fortune, peppered with taut, edgy dialogue, fit beautifully into Kirn's satirical style. However carefully Justin documents the changes in other characters, his own character remains oddly consistent, so that, despite all the laughs, the novel ends with the hero still on the brink of real transformation. But he's such a sharp, endearing lad, with psychic depths as fascinating as his glossy cynicism that readers will be satisfied with young Justin just as he is. Author tour. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

Justin Cobb belongs to an eccentric and emotionally dysfunctional family. His father, after exaggerating a knee injury so he wouldn't have to play football, now sells sporting goods and hunts to prove his manhood. His neglected mother searches for love and self-worth by entering a writing contest to win a date with Don Johnson and works as a nurse at a rehab clinic for the rich and famous. His brother can't control his weight and as it fluctuates so does his passion for tennis. Justin himself is a sensitive, obsessive, and hyper teenager whose coping mechanism is sucking his thumb. No amount of threats, bribes, cajoling, orthodontia, or Suc-No-Mor salve can keep him from putting thumb to mouth. It isn't until he is hypnotized by his hippie dentist that Justin loses interest in his thumb; however, his obsessive nature fills the void with a number of inadequate replacements, including cigarettes, cough syrup, flyfishing, debate team, Ritalin, and religion. As Justin moves from one obsession to the next, he comes to understand more about himself and his family. Sometimes disturbing, often funny, but always true to life, Kirn tells a unique and engaging story about the pains of adolescence and the acceptance of self. --Carolyn Kubisz

Library Journal Review

Growing up is difficult, and adolescence especially so. Justin, firmly in the midst of puberty, is confused. When we meet him, at 14, he is still sucking his thumb. His wacky, hippie dentist offers to hypnotize him to rid him of this embarrassing habit; it works, but Justin realizes that he has lost his solace in a crazy world. Deprived of his thumb, Justin tries to find something that will help him make sense of the world and calm him down. He tries Ritalin, sex, the speech team, fly fishing, work, alcohol, marijuana, and even Mormonism, all to no avail. In addition, he has his family to cope with: Joel, his younger and more athletic brother, and his parents, who ask Justin to call them by their given names so they won't feel so old. Justin tries to bond with his family despite their eccentricities and manages to find some common ground. Funny and neurotic, this second novel from New York magazine reviewer Kirn is a good story about growing up and learning to cope. Recommended for public libraries.ÄRobin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

YA-In a voice reminiscent of that of Holden Caulfield, Justin Cobb recounts his efforts to kick his dependency-not on alcohol, not on drugs, but on his thumb. Dubbed "the King Kong of oral obsessives" by his hippie dentist, the 16-year-old is desperate to find a way to break this embarrassing habit he has retained since infancy. His father, a former football star, tries to help by providing a course of Suk-No-Mor, a nasty cayenne-pepper cream, and a healthy dose of fly-fishing. His mother, who works as a nurse helping the rich and famous sober up, seems more concerned with a fantasy romantic relationship with TV-star Don Johnson than with her son's problems. Hypnosis seems to work, but the problem surfaces in other forms. The thumb goes out, but beer, decongestants, nitrous oxide, cough syrup, Midol, and Ritalin go in. With hyperactive zeal, Justin also tries the school speech team, sex, honest work, and even Mormonism. In this funny but often bittersweet tale, the teen finally determines that growing up is hard to do and not an overnight process. He can only hope that people will accept him as he is: thumbsucking and all. YAs will surely identify with Justin, whose struggles may reflect some of their own.-Carol Clark, formerly at Fairfax County Public Schools, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



It was the one thing I'd always done. Even breathing did not go back to the womb. Being part of a circle of shoulder, arm, hand, mouth, connected me to myself. This circle is what they tried to break the summer I turned fourteen. The appetite was neither thirst nor hunger but seemed to include them both. It could come at any time: while I was waiting in winter darkness for the school bus, fretting about Marcel, the French exchange student who sat behind me in social studies class and liked to rap his knuckles on my skull. Or I'd be walking past the downstairs bathroom, humming and pressing my hands against my ears to block out the sound of Mike, my father, singing high and tunelessly about the suppliers to his sporting goods store: "Oh, Orvis, you sons of bitches, get off my back," or "Give me a break, Smith & Wesson, just one small break." Or maybe I was downtown at Wayne's Cafe, watching my ravenous little brother, Joel, spread so much butter on an English muffin that his teeth left disgusting clifflike marks. The effect when my thumb touched my lips was subtle and encompassing. Because I sometimes watched myself in a mirror, doubling my sense of self-communion, I knew how I looked at the moment of closure. Above my greedily flexing cheeks, my eyes would shine as though I'd just put drops in. My forehead would relax and lose its lines. From the rhythmic bullfrog swelling of my throat and the pulsing muscles along my jaw, it appeared I was actually taking nourishment. I believed I was. When Mike began his campaign against my habit, the idea of it didn't seem to anger him. With his chewing gum and cigars and Red Man chewing tobacco, it's possible he even sympathized; he was a person who liked his mouth full, too. What riled him was that I'd developed an overbite and he was getting the orthodontist's bills. One night, when he was grouching about them, I said, "I thought your insurance paid for everything." We were in the TV room watching Ronald Reagan, whom Mike had given money to and voted for. Mike still had a Reagan sticker on his Ford, nicked and shredded from my mother's attempts to scrape it off with a razor blade. "You people must think insurance is free," Mike said. He spat brown tobacco juice into a beer can he was holding against his lower lip. "In point of fact, Justin, my entire store is paying for what you're doing to your teeth." "I didn't know that," I said. "I'm dumb sometimes." Mike gazed at Reagan's square, tanned face and sighed. "Insurance just spreads the costs, it doesn't erase them. Can't you people get that through your heads?" That was what Mike called our family: you people. It made me feel like an intruder in his life. Our dentist was a man named Perry Lyman. He worked in the northern suburbs of St. Paul and commuted from our little town of Shandstrom Falls. Before outsiders started moving there, in the early seventies, the town had been a sleepy trading center for hog and dairy farmers, but its large, inexpensive Victorian houses and proximity to the St. Croix River--a government-designated "wild river" that people said you could drink from, though I wouldn't--attracted a stream of outdoorsy young professionals. They brought with them new, exotic sports that hadn't yet spread across the Midwest: cross-country skiing, bike touring, kayak racing. Rallies and meets were held every month or so, announced by flyers posted at Mike's store. Mike competed in all these events. He held his own, but the first-place trophies always seemed to go to Perry Lyman. I could see why. Perry Lyman was steady, cool, and able to pace himself, while Mike's approach of clenched ferocity burned him out midrace. Perry Lyman seemed to take pleasure in sports, while Mike's interest in them was Spartan, almost survivalist, as though he were in training for the day when modern civilization would collapse and men would have to paddle and ski great distances, gathering food and supplies. Mike's experience playing college football (only a senior-year knee injury had kept him from going pro) had taught him, in the words of his old coach, that "winners treat every practice as a game." The saying decorated Mike's business cards and hung in a gold frame inside his store. Perry Lyman took a softer approach. He was a kind of hippie, a social dropout, though with short, mossy hair and normal clothes; he sometimes wore a bracelet of tiny seashells but always removed them before touching patients' mouths. He smoked pot--I saw a scorched hemostat on his desk one day while he was adjusting my retainer, and I knew what it was from the sheriff's antidrug booth at the county fair. He was a hippie in other ways, too. He preferred hypnosis to anesthetics and liked to prescribe simple exercises for the correction of minor malformations. The year before he gave me a retainer, he'd actually had me using my fingers to push my top teeth back. I pushed for an hour each night after supper and gave myself low-level headaches. Though Perry Lyman knew the real reason, he pretended to blame my overbite on an odd nocturnal tongue motion supposedly common in boys my age. In explaining these spasms he introduced me to the term "subconscious pressure" and the idea of involuntary behavior. I instantly recognized the all-purpose excuse I'd been seeking all my life. "So if people can't help things they do," I said, "why punish them?" I was thinking of John Hinckley, who'd shot Reagan. "It has nothing to do with changing the offender," Perry Lyman said. "It's merely society working out its rage." "I see." "There's a group subconscious, too. It's complicated." "It makes sense to me." The day of my retainer fitting, I sat in Perry Lyman's padded chair and gazed around at rainbow-colored posters reminding me that "A Thing of Beauty Is a Joy Forever" and "If You Love Something, Let It Go." While I struggled to breathe through a stuffy nose, Perry Lyman packed my mouth with gray mint-flavored putty, then had me bite down to make an impression. Two weeks later he gave me my "appliance," a pink plastic, crab-shaped object ringed by wires and ridged on top to match my wrinkled palate. Excerpted from Thumbsucker: A Novel by Walter Kirn All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Part I Mouth to Mouthp. 1
Part II Hyperp. 103
Part III Kingdom Comep. 203