Peter Brown Hoffmeister’s first young adult novel, This Is the Part Where You Laugh, opens with the young protagonist Travis releasing two small South American crocodiles he bought from a guy who posted a flier at the Chevron station—caimans—into the little lake in the middle of the North Eugene neighborhood where Travis lives. The book is compulsively readable from the first page.
When he’s not writing, Hoffmeister teaches English and outdoor skills at South Eugene High School in the Integrated Outdoor Program, and is well-loved by his students. As a teen, he ran away from home and got expelled from two boarding schools. He was placed in a minimum-security “life challenge program” in East Texas after facing legal troubles, and ran away from that too. He finally ended up at South Eugene as a student and met an English teacher who mentored him. Now, as a teacher, he mentors troubled students. The circle continues.
This Is the Part Where You Laugh focuses on teens struggling to be as good as they can in bad circumstances. The novel deals with addiction, homelessness, racism, violence, abuse—and the hope and humor that keep its characters trying in spite of all that.
Hoffmeister blends the immediacy of first person present tense narration seamlessly with memory in short, poignant chapters. Masterful withholding of key information until just the right moment heightens the suspense that keeps you reading. As I read, I loved not knowing how all the separate parts of the story would tie together, but having faith that they would—and being right. Travis’s authentic voice carries the novel, and it teems with sentences that stop you. One of my favorites: “The morning is like a new box of nails, dew silver on the grass.”
Place names invoke a kind of magic in writing—a magic of specificity. For me this magic comes through even when I know nothing about the places being named. When Travis rides his bike on streets I’ve been on—Gilham, Green Acres, 7th—and along Eugene’s river bike path, I thrill. A place I drive by every week—the park under the Washington-Jefferson Bridge—is the setting for one of the novel’s most crucial scenes, and it makes me drive by a little slower, look closer.
The novel is full of characters with complexities that make them heartbreakingly realistic: Travis’s homeless junkie mom, his grandparents in their mobile home, Natalie the girl across the lake, and his best friend Creature. And Travis, who tries over and over again to be good and do good, who keeps screwing it up, but keeps on trying anyway. It’s hard to watch, hard to read, but it’s a huge part of what makes this book so good. More than anything, it’s a book about compassion—about hearing perspectives it would be easier to ignore. Travis says, “Sometimes I get mad or jealous when I think about other people’s parents, but mostly I get confused. Why are some people the way they are, while other people are like my mom? It’s easy to say it’s the drugs, but what was it before that? Maybe we need to ask more questions.” That’s what it’s about: asking those questions.
Review by Meli Ewing