Man O’War by Cory McCarthy

  • Dutton Books for Young Readers (Penguin Group)
  • Released May 31, 2022
  • Buy from Bookshop.org here (support your local bookstore!).

This sprawling narrative follows River through high school, college, and beyond. While there isn’t much of a plot to speak of, that’s really not the point. The point is River’s growth as a human from a “mean asshole” who keeps everyone at a distance into a proud “man o’war” who has surrounded himself with a chosen family for the ages. 

There is a lot to love in this book — more than I can say in a simple review. There are lots of complex relationships and side characters (Mrs. Cheng is my favorite, but Everett and Varian are pretty great too). The relationship between Taylor and River is an especially rich addition because it demonstrates that even in-community connections can be toxic. One standout scene is the microagression drinking game. It felt like a turning point for River embracing community. It made love possible in a way that it hadn’t seemed like it was before then, if only because it was the first time (without Indy) that River truly believed he wasn’t alone.

That said, this book is not easy. River is in a lot of pain and lashes out every where (like a man o’war, actually), in really awful ways. There isn’t one person who escapes unscathed: both the “bad guys” like Taylor, Kerrig, and Houser AND the “good guys” like Catherine and the Chengs catch the sting of River’s flailing. If there is an emotional blind spot in the book, it’s the way that the people who deserve more from River never demand it. They all just accept his horribleness as part of his process. 

But even that is believable, and that’s the real magic of this book. McCarthy has grounded the novel in the real world with such rich attention to setting and detail that it feels like it could be happening in the next town over. Young readers will recognize River’s life, River’s struggles, and hopefully River’s (eventual) joy as eminently true to life. 

And as McCarthy himself says, joy is the real revolution.

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