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“There is very little about humans that doesn’t have to do with connection,” Georgia. — Whale Talk
by Chris Crutcher
AR Test, Must Read
T.J. is a Cutter High School senior who despises school sports. He thinks the jocks and their letter jackets are over-glorified, and that the school favors them. He wants nothing to do with sports until his English teacher, Mr. Simet, asks him to form a swim team. After witnessing a mentally handicapped student get bullied for wearing his dead brother’s letter jacket, T.J. forms an idea: a swim team full of high school rejects earning the right to wear letter jackets at school.
What the team lacks in skill they make up for in motivation. There is no pool at Cutter, and they have to travel to every swim meet. Mr. Simet and Icko, a homeless man who sleeps at the gym where they practice, help morph this group of outcasts into a real team. The team eventually becomes a family, a place to share their tragic backstories and offer each other consolation.
The story is told in the first person from T.J.’s point of view. Readers will enjoy his quick wit and appreciate his empathy. T.J.’s motivation for the swim team sways from wanting to defy Cutter’s athletic expectations, to giving the team a sense of belonging. While T.J. makes questionable decisions and can be hot-headed, his heart is in the right place. T.J. has a great support system, including his foster parents and his counselors, who give him advice along his journey. Unusually wise for his age, T.J. learns that knowing someone’s past experiences is the key to understanding the reason behind their actions.
While there is some swim terminology used, Whale Talk focuses mostly on T.J.’s life. There are a lot of subplots besides T.J. forming the swim team, which may be overwhelming for some readers. However, in true Chris Crutcher fashion, every subplot intertwines and contains a lesson to be learned by T.J. and the reader. These subplots have mature topics including bullying, domestic violence, child abuse, racism, and death. Whale Talk is a must-read, heartwarming book for those who want to think deeply about human connection.
- J. talks about how his biological mom got pregnant with him. “She’d had a one-night stand with my sperm donor to get even for a good thumping and had no idea the tall black-Japanese poet’s squiggly swimmer was the one in a billion to crash through to the promised land.”
- When talking to a classmate named Dan Hole, T.J. is grateful his “last name can’t be translated into any target so basic to adolescent males.”
- J. tries to “outsmart the Internet controls the school puts on” and types in “‘chicken breasts,’ hoping the browser will spit back a little bit about chickens and a whole lot about breasts.”
- J. talks about how much a jock at his school loves his Ford. T.J. says, “I swear, if God made him choose between that ugly truck and his you-know-what, which he claims is also supersized by McDonald’s, it would have been a three-day decision.”
- J. describes Carly, the girl he has a crush on. “There is no butt-twitching or flirtatious glancing or any of the symptoms that usually rocket me to Hormone City, but her natural sexuality is jarring.”
- Carly tells T.J. what she is looking for in a relationship. “If we’re friends, we’re friends. If we have sex, we have sex. I don’t sleep with more than one person, and I won’t go with anyone who does. We double up on birth control.”
- J. recounts the story of his dad having lunch with a woman and then sleeping with her. “She took him to her house, where they made fast, hot, electric love, uncharacteristic for either of them, to hear Dad tell it.”
- J. hints that he and Carly messed around in his car. “I drop off Carly to head home, having completed a science experiment with steam and the interior of a Chevy Corvair.”
- J. tells Tay-Roy, one of the swimmers, his goal for the swim meet should be “for him not to get sexually assaulted on the deck by the female spectators.” T.J. goes on to say Tay-Roy is a “serious hunk in a tank suit.”
- Mott, one of the swimmers, says one of his mother’s boyfriends molested him. Matt says, “Ol Canada [the boyfriend] couldn’t figure out which bed he was supposed to sleep in.”
- Rich accuses T.J. of “fucking [Rich’s] wife.” T.J. responds, “Nope. I have a girlfriend.”
- When Tay-Roy asks Mott what the point of having a girlfriend who lives in Alabama is, Mott “simulates whacking off.” Mott later calls it “cybersex.”
- Carly’s friend, Kristen, recounts her date with Barbour, a man who is known to be abusive. Kristen told Barbour something that upset him, and he said she “could make it up to him by having sex.” Kristen thought he was joking, but “all of a sudden he was unbuttoning my coat, and I [Kristen] was trying to get out and accidentally scratched his [Barbour’s] face . . . He kept telling me to strip, and I’d say no and he’d punch my arm . . . he just kept saying it faster and faster and hitting me before I could answer.”
- J. describes the swim team’s new workouts. “We have put the supine surgical-tubing station (which Dan Hole began to call muscle masturbation – thereby placing him forever in Mott’s good graces) into mothballs, and now the guys simply line up in an endless forty-by-infinite-yard relay.”
- J. throws himself over a fawn so two hunters can’t shoot it. “Wyberg and Barbour tried to peel me back, slapping the back of my head and kicking my ribs, and in the chaos the deer kicked a three-inch gash in my forehead.”
- J.’s dad accidentally killed a baby, who crawled under his truck and got caught between the two rear tires. The baby’s mom “discovered a small severed arm lying next to the white line . . . maybe a hundred yards from where the truck spit out the rest of the little boy’s mangled hand.”
- J.’s dad confronts Rich about stalking his wife, who has a restraining order on him. “He walks in and right up to Rich, shoving his fingers deep on either side of his Adambac, pushing the back of his head against the window.”
- Rich shoots T.J.’s dad, killing him. “I [T.J.] glimpse the muzzle of the deer rifle . . . Dad instinctively dives directly into the path of the bullet. His body crashes to the pavement with a thud . . . I see blood leaking onto the pavement.”
Drugs and Alcohol
- J. says his birth mother was “getting heavily into crack and crank and heavily out of taking care of me.” She eventually decided to take him to his adoptive parents.
- J. says Chris was “born addicted to crack cocaine.”
- J. says his mother “may have been a little too ‘spiritual’ on mood-altering funstuff” when she named him “The Tao.”
- Simet, T.J.’s English teacher, drinks a beer as he and T.J. eat pizza.
- Simet orders a glass of wine while he and T.J. are at dinner.
- J. thinks about his past. “When my bio-mom…was at the top of her druggie game, she would leave me for days, propped in the crib or the car seat . . . I’ve heard my mom say a thousand times that if you give her a drug-addicted mother with a kid under two, she’ll give you a ninety-five percent chance of that kid getting molested or beat or both.”
- While the swim team is on their way home, the bus drives over ice and smashes into a ditch. Mott says, “Damn, I been on drug trips that weren’t that good.”
- Rich shows up at T.J.’s house drunk, begging to see his wife.
- J.’s foster mom says his biological mom was “launched on meth.”
- God, Jesus, for Christ’s sake, and Goddamn are frequently used as exclamations.
- Profanity is used frequently. Profanity includes butt, dummy, shit, shitty, shitter, bullshit, shithead, chickenshit, hell, asshole, ass, ass wipe, hardass, smartass, prick, piss off, fuck, fucked-up, fuckin, damn, bitch, son of a bitch, nigger, chink, bastard, crap, and retard.
- J. says a famous radio talk show gives the “hot poop on big-time crime fighting.”
- J. says the Cutter sports teams “pray before games.”
- J. says the football players are “gods” at Cutter.
- Coach Cutter goes to church.
- J. talks about the irony of his dad acting like a saint, yet not being religious. “It’s funny. Dad doesn’t attend church, and it is seldom I hear his spiritual take on anything. But the running over of that little boy almost turned him into a saint, as far as public behavior goes.”
- In the past, T.J. has a teacher who was “the new preacher at the Mountain Bible Center, and he ran his classroom the way I imagine he ran his church, with a holy iron fist.”
- While doing an activity where he tries to make all the words he can from the word “Christmas,” Chris puts his own name above “Christ.” The teacher tells Chris he “can’t put [his] own name before the name of the Lord.” Chris responds by saying he was told “at Sunday school that Jesus liked kids and He was nice. So He wouldn’t mind.” As a punishment, the teacher made Chris stand up beside his desk and say “Chris Coughlin thinks he’s better than Jesus.”
- J.’s dad says he was “mad at God” for letting him accidentally kill a baby.
- J.’s dad talks about the first time he saw a photograph of the Earth that was taken from the moon. “From a physical point of view, God appeared a long ways off.”
- Someone talks about how his mother’s old abusive boyfriend, Rance, used to babysit him. “Man, if you want to pass up purgatory and go straight to hell, you want to enroll in Rance Haskins’s Day Care.”
- J. says it’s “as if the minor gods in charge of jerks are doing their job,” when he catches Rich violating the restraining order.
- In a fit of rage, Rich shoots T.J.’s dad. As T.J.’s dad is dying, he tells T.J., “You’re going to have to forgive him, T.J. He had no idea what he was doing.” T.J. thinks, “That was Jesus’ last line.”
by Jill Johnson