Friday, February 25, 2011

Leverage by Joshua Cohen

Friday, February 25, 2011

There’s an extraordinary price for victory at Oregrove High. It is paid on—and off—the football field. And it claims its victims without mercy—including the most innocent bystanders.

When a violent, steroid-infused, ever-escalating prank war has devastating consequences, an unlikely friendship between a talented but emotionally damaged fullback and a promising gymnast might hold the key to a school’s salvation.

Told in alternating voices and with unapologetic truth, Leverage illuminates the fierce loyalty, flawed justice, and hard-won optimism of two young athletes.

Leverage is a book I am glad is fiction, and fear may hold a few too many truths about the power of high school athletes, athletic programs, steroids usage, and the high cost of bullying. As YA contemporary novels go, this one knocked me out with its explicit and graphic portrayal of what happens when the need to win supersedes everything.

Let me warn you from the get go that Leverage is not a feel good story, and if you are squeamish reading about violence, there are a few scenes of a graphic nature that are extremely hard to take. However, Cohen’s portrayal of how quickly a bunch of pranks can spiral into deadly consequences is meant to make you uncomfortable and he succeeds. 

Even now as I try to describe my feelings about this book, I am at a lost for words. How do I explain liking something that made me cringe and recoil from the experience. What I can say is that Cohen’s writing is frank and tensely suspenseful and left me a lot less innocent than what I was before I read the book.

To be certain, Leverage's plot  is strongly character driven. Cohen alternates the story between two totally different boys. Danny dreams of being an Olympic gymnast. He is small, a sophomore, and is just trying to survive high school. Kurt, on the other hand is a “man-giant” and the school’s new fullback. He arrives at Oregrove with a lot of baggage. Most of his life has been spent in the foster care system and as the plot develops, Cohen gives ever increasing snippets into the abuse he has suffered at the hands of his caretakers. Despite his size, and his past, he is gentle and caring, and the complete opposite of the three senior football players, whose main goal in life is to let others know they rule the school.

I really like Danny, but it was Kurt, who I felt the most compassion towards. Both boy are fighting personal demons, and Cohen's skillful development of Danny and Kurt’s unlikely friendship is carefully scripted in a realistic way. In the end, their friendship is the vehicle that allows them both to summon the strength they need to face their fears and stop being victims.  

While the secondary characters, including the football coach, whose main goal is to ensure his players are stars and pushes them to remain in top form by giving them steroids to get them bigger, seems at times stereotypical, Cohen manages to provide enough background to keep them from being flat. From the very first chapter Cohen aptly describes the disparity found between the football players and other athletes in the school. The bullying by the entitled seniors is accepted as part of the school’s hierarchy, and becomes increasingly more dangerous throughout the story.

Leverage is an extremely powerful novel. Although I was horrified by the violence, I was also compelled by Danny and Kurt’s stories and found the book impossible to put down. While I cannot recommend Leverage to my middle school students, I highly recommend it for older YA readers, especially guys. It provides a sense of empowerment through friendship and proves that courage is fighting back fear and standing up for what is right.

 Source: Received ARC copy from author for review

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