Shannon Wolf on Bud Smith’s novel TEENAGER

Collectively, we’ve been obsessed with the Bonnie and Clyde narrative for decades. In the 1950s, we were a nation held captive by the spree killings of Charles Starkweather and his teenaged girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate in Nebraska and Wyoming. Those murders inspired the Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino collaboration Natural Born Killers in 1994. So, it is perhaps unsurprising that we are craving another iteration. Bud Smith blows all fiction that came before him out of the water, with his 2022 novel Teenager, a timeless story of teenage outlaws in love that is nuanced, troubling, and captivating.

Smith is a heavy construction worker living in Jersey City. He also works as a writing teacher, editor, and his recent books include Dust Bunny City and the short story collection Double Bird. Teenager focuses on Tella Cartwright and her boyfriend Kody Rawlee Green, both of whom feel ostracized in their community. Tella’s family are abusive, particularly her Italian immigrant father who works as a mason. Brief returns to the Cartwrights’ shared past demonstrate the fear with which he controls his two children, Tella, and her Navy recruit brother Neil. Kody too has experienced trauma, and has significant bodily injury that result in seizures and delusions. After a massacre in the early pages of the novel, the two embark on a wild, heady road trip across America, leaving Smith’s native Jersey and making stops at Dollywood in Tennessee, a California beach campground, the Grand Canyon, and even a Montana ranch where they become ranch hands. Alongside their main narrative, is Neil, Tella’s brother, in hot pursuit of the felonious pair.

This book features incredible illustrations by Smith’s wife, the artist Rae Buleri, who besides illustrating is also a textile artist and a painter. She previously collaborated with Smith on Dust Bunny City. Buleri’s illustrations accompany the opening of each brief chapter here, as well as some additional line drawings that point to small moments in the text. My personal favorite is the double page spread which depicts a coyote in pursuit of hens. Buleri and Smith’s collaborations are always sensational, and here Buleri captures the childlike cruelty that rings through the text perfectly.

An admirable aspect of this novel is how it is rooted in place. Initially we see Smith’s conception of Jersey—Kody offers us a bird’s eye view of their shared town from a water tower that overlooks the famous Pine Barrens. Most telling is the water tower itself: “[It] had a typo: HOME OF THE SCREMING EAGLES. According to the water tower, the town was nameless. It existed merely for typos and high school football.” Later, as we encounter more of the America that Kody has fantasized about, we participate in his excitement, and often Tella’s disappointment; there is a fantastic juxtaposition of the two throughout. When they first arrive at the Montana ranch for example, Kody bubbles with excitement: “It reminded him of the photos he’d seen of Parris Island, where new marines went to be reborn via unrelenting drill sergeants.” Tella however is underwhelmed and disillusioned—this is another place where she will simply concede to men: “She thought there was work mopping the floors but she didn’t exactly want to do that […] She’d never exactly been given a choice before by a man.” The role of the road trip, and this lamplight narrative, is clear to us: there is no escaping their own story.

There is something to be said about the relationship we have with the narrative here too. Kody is afraid to come clean about his condition early on: “He figured if she knew he was the kind of guy who unpredictably shook violently, saw ethereal light, saw bushes burning and all that, maybe she would think he wasn’t the marrying kind.” Much of the novel concerns Kody and Tella (or as he calls her “Teal Cartwheels”) figuring out the level of honesty and vulnerability they are comfortable having with each other—often we know more about their interior lives than they are able to reveal to one another, despite their stuff-of-legends love. Smith conducts a clever orchestra with his use of the third person; we see into the childlike perspectives of Tella and Kody, but we still engage with an adult sensibility. When the pair see a bus full of incarcerated men on the road, both make inappropriate gestures to the men and find the bus a source of amusement. But Smith writes: “Most of the men stared straight ahead at the back of the seat in front of them. There was nothing the world could show them anymore.”

It’s easy to hear the plot outline—girl meets guy and they run away together after killing her family—and believe that we’ve heard this story before, but the characters are nuanced, especially Tella, who feels so real to me—she is conflicted, sensitive, and even relatable without being a “thin” character and without Smith falling into the trap of tropes. We might even feel an initial inclination to discredit the value of the text because of its focus on the young, but that analysis doesn’t allow for the delicate beauty of Smith’s prose, or the authentic way he inhabits these young voices. Smith does justice to the teen narrative, and his depictions feel natural and genuine—both Kody and Tella feel idiosyncratic and familiar. Smith also doesn’t shy away from the hard topics—for example the book opens with Kody locked up in a jail of some kind, and Tella undergoing an abortion. Smith highlights their childlike natures despite their hardships though—when the pair arrive at the Carson Ranch in Montana, Kody gives Teal a pseudonym—Wendy Darling—pulled directly from Peter Pan. The enmeshing of the adult atmosphere with the youthful actions is disarming, and intriguing.

As well as all of that, Smith gives credit where it is due—it’s easy to dismiss stories about teenagers once we are no longer teenagers themselves, but being a teenager is uniquely challenging. First loves are complex and intense. The experiences we encounter as teenagers shape us as adults. By the close of the book we are left to wonder who these characters will become, and what their real-life counterparts might go on to do with their lives. Much interest has been expressed in Caril Ann Fugate who went on to finish a prison sentence, change her name and get married after her partner in crime, Starkweather, was sent to the electric chair in 1959. The people who remain after a crime spree are fascinating to examine—these people, or characters in the case of Teenager are the ones who have the answers to all of our questions. We want to know how complicit Tella is—why is she on this journey, and is she really just going along for the ride? 

We return to these Bonnie and Clyde narratives to try and make sense of the psychology at play here. The interest in killer complexes has birthed numerous television shows, movies, and books. The people living outside the law fascinate us, compel us, and in turn we are seeking knowledge about ourselves; why we are the way that we are. Smith expands these conventions to create complex, flawed characters that feel real to us. This is not just an exhilarating, addictive novel, it’s a study of genuine humanity.

Teenager, by Bud Smith. New York, New York: Vintage, May 2022. 400 pages. $17.00, paper.

Shannon Wolf is a British writer and teacher, living in Denver, Colorado. Her debut full-length poetry collection Green Card Girl is forthcoming from Fernwood Press. She received a joint MA-MFA in Poetry at McNeese State University and also has degrees from Lancaster University and the University of Chichester. She is the Co-Curator of the Poets in Pajamas Reading Series. Her poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction (which can also be found under the name Shannon Bushby) have appeared in or are forthcoming from Bending GenresThe ForgeNo Contact Mag, and HAD, among others. You can find her on social media @helloshanwolf.

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