Dan Versus Nature by Don Calame. Candlewick Press, 2016. 9780763670719.
Gene: Dan vs. Nature: the ultimate teen boy book!
G: I would give this book to almost any normal, hormonal, insane teen boy that I know.
S: Yes. I gave it to an ELL student who said he liked Calame’s Swim the Fly. His tutor was there with him and didn’t know what the book was about. I said “it’s a nature book. It’s about nature.”
G: It’s like Hatchet, but everybody has a raging boner the entire time.
S: OK, the very first sentence of the book: “Charlie and I are getting our asses punched.” This is why I decided I had to read the entire book. There’s a lot of books where if it grabs me on line one, I’m in. “You had me at hello.”
G: So Dan and his friend Charlie are geeks.
S: Yes, and his mom, uh… hasn’t had the best luck with boyfriends.
G: No, she’s terrible at dating. She brings home all these losers, they always disappoint her.
S: Sometimes they steal her money. Sometimes they steal her booze.
G: She’s a physical therapist, like my wife, so I identified with her. My mother was a terrible dater, but a serial monogamist nonetheless.
S: But now, his mom brings home Hank.
G: Dan is our hero. His friend Charlie is kind of a brainiac science guy.
S: Hyper verbal. Scared of germs.
G: And Dan wants to be a graphic novelist. He’s making comics and he’s putting his sexual fantasies into them.
S: Yeah. He’s madly in love with a girl who has become the heroine of his sword and sorcery comic.
G: Erin. And he’s going to get close to her by succeeding with the health class robot baby that he has to take home and care for — Erin has knitted a sweater for it. There’s a wrist band that monitors how well it’s doing, and this all becomes a part of the story.
Dan’s mom brings home her new, serious boyfriend Hank, and Hank looks like…
S: Like Wolverine!
G: So who do we cast as him in our movie?
S: So, there’s a couple things you need. You’ve got Wolverine looks…
G: He’s a dentist.
S: Through the course of the book they play terrible, disgusting pranks on him to try to make him think he doesn’t want to be Dan’s stepdad.
G: This is the core of the book. We should explain… so Dan’s mom, for Dan’s birthday, I think?
S: So Dan’s mom brings home Hank, introduces Hank, they’re going to get married. Dan is appalled. He doesn’t want his mom to have her heart broken again.
G: And also they’re going to move away when Dan’s mom marries Hank. So Dan will have to leave his high school. Dan has two reasons to not like Hank right away. Then Dan’s mom buys Dan and Hank a trip to survival camp for a week in the woods.
S: Yes, so they can bond and get to know each other before the wedding.
G: And Dan arranges for Charlie to go with them.
S: Because Charlie has a plan.
G: The plan is that they are going to do terrible things to Hank.
S: Embarrassing things!
G: Embarrassing things to irritate him, to piss him off, and reveal Hank’s true self. Basically, they want to freak him out enough that Hank’s going to run away, screaming, from Dan’s mom. So that’s the setup.
G: And they have the realistic robot baby along from school. The baby ends up needing all the care in the world and they keep foisting it off on Hank on the way to the camp. The camp is rinky-dink, not really a camp at all.
S: And this sort of introduces Charlie as the mastermind in this because he reprograms the baby, and he refills its waste receptacles with the most hideous, smelly, awful things.
G: (laughs) Yeah, I forgot about that. There’s a lot of crapping in this.
S: And a lot of vomit.
G: And blood.
S: Charlie brings all of the chemicals needed to do the various bodily-function related pranks but he’s also terrified of germs and infections so he brings immense amounts of hand sanitizer and disinfectants and everything he needs to survive in the woods because he hates the woods.
G: And the pranks are hideous, they’re everything from Dan asking for sex advice from Hank…
S: Dan tells him he’s worried that he has one testicle the size of a peanut.
S: That introduces the pranks. And Dan is horrified that he has to say this thing about himself to Hank.
G: Maybe that’s how Dan continues to be sympathetic, because he’s stuck between Charlie, who’s always pushing him to do these things, and Hank, who is clearly just a very nice guy.
G: Hank is trying to be a father figure to Dan, whose dad abandoned him.
S: On the way to the camp Dan has a fake BO smell that Charlie provides…
G: And there are two other people in the van besides them.
S: Right, that’s the thing: he applies the BO smell, and he eats a huge amount of horrible snacks in preparation for taking an ipecac and vomiting all over Hank, when an extremely cute girl joins the party with her mom!
G: With her very aggressive cougar mom.
S: Penelope, the girl, wears thick-framed glasses and is also incredibly verbal…
G: She’s very geeky, she’s halfway between Charlie and Dan.
S: …into graphic novels, into comics. She and Charlie start to face off when they have an argument about a dictionary. (laughs) Which dictionary is better?
G: And then Dan is not sure about going through with the vomiting, and Charlie feeds the medicine to him without him knowing about it…?
S: I forget exactly how that happens, but they go through with the vomit.
G: In very short order, they’re covered in barf. I think this isn’t too much of a spoiler to say Dan is soon covered in vomit, deer piss, he’s having diarrhea, he’s exposed to poison oak, Penelope has seen him naked (laughs).
S: More than once! And not in an attractive light.
G: (laughs) No! And they’re being chased by a bear. Hank is just trying to figure out what’s going on as it gets worse, but he still hangs in there as a good guy. It becomes Hatchet with idiots!
S: Hatchet with idiots, definitely.
G: It’s a Jackass version of Hatchet.
S: One of the questions I had for you about Penelope– do you remember what book she was reading at the airport?
S: Infinite Jest! And I was like, you get points because it’s a huge long book that’s incredibly verbal, it’s heavy on the vocab, so I can see that, but it’s really a guy book. If, like me, you’ve met guys who’ve only read one or two authors, and they’re manly men of a certain type, it’s David Foster Wallace, Chuck Palahniuk, and/or maybe Hunter S. Thompson if they’re really stretching. So I feel like it’s a guy book. I was trying to figure out what the hyper-verbal massive book equivalent would be that was a little less masculine.
G: Maybe it’s a Margaret Atwood book or something. Maybe it’s The Blind Assassin or The Handmaid’s Tale. What’s funny is, I’m terrible at… well, librarians don’t have to give booktalks for verbal girls.
S: No, that’s true! That’s my weak area!
G: They tell us about books. They’ll ask what to read next, but you don’t have to pitch them, while for boys you’re always having to pitch to them.
S: Yeah, constantly.
G: And girls who are not verbal, I don’t know what they respond to. But it feels like they’re always on the edge of picking up the book you give them like the Princess Diaries, or Sloppy Firsts, or The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Those are strong booktalks for girls who don’t know what to read next, who aren’t really on those tracks. Remember The Black Book? The Jonah Black Books?
S: Oh, yeah.
G: I read those to my daughter a couple years ago. But it’s not really hard to find a book for a teenage girl to read, and adult women never come in and go “I’m just looking for something”…
S: The most frustrating is: “I really liked The Girl On The Train, what do I read next?” or they name five books that have been on the bestseller lists in the last year and you’re like, “Well, why don’t you look at the bestseller list and tell me?”
So this is how on I always am, I’m reading a book about a fictional girl and I’m like “I don’t think that’s a good book choice for you, I think you might like something else.”
G: You’re hilarious. I don’t really have an answer for that.
S: I don’t either. Frankly, I haven’t read Infinite Jest, I just know a lot of people who have and they all sort of fall in the same category.
G: It’s not by David Foster Wallace, is it?
S: It is!
G: No… Oh, sorry, I was thinking of A Confederacy of Dunces, which I’ve never been able to read.
S: Penelope might really like A Confederacy of Dunces.
G: I’ve never been able to read that book.
S: I’ve gotten like a quarter of the way through. I’m going to give it another try.
G: I’ve gotten fifty punishing pages into it and put it down and I will never… twice I’ve made it that far, and people just rave about how funny it is. Ugh, not to me.
S: So do you think you could also sell Dan vs. Nature, in addition to the slapstick, gross-out aspects of it, as a prep for the SAT?
S: (laughs) Because Charlie and Penelope use these extreme vocabulary words…
G: You could sell it to a parent as that. To a horrified parent.
S: Not to give away the ending, but there is a lot more heart in this book than I expected from there being so much poop and vomit.
S: There was actual character development!
G: There was! It was great. But you would sell it on the poop and vomit angle.
S: Oh, yeah. I loved the poop and vomit. I just also loved that there was some growth.
G: It’s actually a novel.