Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1422

A disclaimer at the start of Oddballs says that although the family members are real the other characters are fictional. If this is so, then Oddballs is a masterpiece of vivid, realistic characterization; even if the characters are based on real people, the portraits are remarkable. Best drawn of all...

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A disclaimer at the start of Oddballs says that although the family members are real the other characters are fictional. If this is so, then Oddballs is a masterpiece of vivid, realistic characterization; even if the characters are based on real people, the portraits are remarkable. Best drawn of all is probably Leah, focus of the poignant "Leah's Stories." She is a plain girl, apparently from a poor family, but she tells outrageous stories about her relationships to nobility and of her fantastic adventures in exotic places among singular people. A thoroughgoing nonconformist whose sad efforts to be accepted by her classmates only make her more of an outsider, she is kept at a distance even by Sleator's proud and self-admiring coterie of nonconformists. They consider her a liar and have little concern for why she tells the stories she does. They do not realize that her tall tales belong to a category of literature with a long and honored tradition in America. Her stories of being admired and loved by admirable people are highly entertaining; more importantly, they offer great insight into the soul of someone who is an outsider because she cannot help it.

When Sleator and his friends discover that at least one of her stories is true—she really is picked up by a husband and wife in a Rolls Royce and taken to a studio where they and others practice folk dances—they join in the fun with such zest that Leah is squeezed out. Instead of the revelation that she was telling the truth being a triumph that would prompt Sleator and his friends to admire her, she still remains the eternal outsider, pushed out of the one place where she had been an insider. The story is funny—the tall tales and the revelation that the Rolls Royce was real bringing moments of hilarity—but it is deeply sad because it is primarily a story about character, and in this case the character is a tragic figure who loses even when she does well. Nicole writes Sleator, "She had only one good thing in high school—and she lost it." Leah, just one of many finely depicted characters, seems very true to life in her quirks and her sadness.

The reality of the characterization is notable throughout Oddballs. The Sleator's neighbors, Frank and Nicole, do not seem to be like the kids next door—they seem too individualistic for that, and yet they, too, eventually become conformists. Whether it is Frank's urinating off the veranda or Nicole's flair for dramatics, each seems to behave in ways that are both uniquely individual and typically familial. Frank's tragedy is thus truly poignant; there are many young people who are molded into sterile conformity by their conformist parents, and Frank may be seen as representative of them. His individuality makes his deadeningly dull life meaningful, but when Sleator looks to the future and sees what his friends will become, Frank is lost to conformism; and Nicole's brilliant, creative spirit has been subjugated to the rituals of the Church as she has become a nun.

The core of the book is composed of Sleator's immediate family. William Sleator himself is somewhat wacky from the start. He explains that his mother and father, both very successful professionals in the sciences, made their home a fertile field for imagination and experimentation, and that he and his siblings enjoyed an unusual degree of liberty because of their parents' affectionate but relaxed attitudes. This is worthy of note because of the variety of parental figures found in his fiction. Parents are dolts and nonentities in many modern novels for young adults, as they are in Sleator's The Beasties (1997; see separate entry, Vol. 9). On the other hand, parents who defy the modern stereotype for young adult books occasionally appear, as in The Night the Heads Came (1996; see separate entry, Vol. 9), in which the parents are not only intelligent but are trusting of their son; the father seems notably like Sleator's father in Oddballs—unruffled by extraordinary, strong-minded, independent, smart children.

Sleator's coconspirator is his sister Vicky, younger than he but equally gifted in making mischief. She and Sleator find ways to torment or tease their little brothers—from the Babaloo Bum game, in which Danny rocks on suitcases during a car trip until the inevitable happens, to teaching Danny and Tycho all the dirty words that most parents are horrified to hear (although their parents hear the words without concern). Vicky makes her own special contributions: it is she who develops the song of how the children's parents never come back after leaving for an evening out in response to Danny and Tycho's endless questions about when their parents will return from a night excursion. The song has a curious effect in that the children cry when Sleator's voice becomes tremulous, but they demand to hear the song again and again. Vicky also is somewhat less inhibited in public than Sleator. Given Sleator's own imaginative games, this would be hard to do, but Vicky will do in public what Sleator shies away from. In "The Pitiful Encounter," she and her friends Avis and Eleanor spontaneously put on a psychodrama:

"Go away!" Vicky said, loudly enough for the other passengers to hear. "You can't sit with us!"

"But I jist want t'be yer friend," Avis faltered. The woman Avis had asked to move was looking back and forth between them. The other passengers had fallen silent, listening. I was a little embarrassed, but not Vicky.

"Well, you can't be our friend! You talk funny. We don't like you!" Vicky savagely retorted.

We see here not only a little of Vicky's aggressive imagination, but possibly a hint of why Sleator became a writer. Although he is often the inventor of schemes in Oddballs, he becomes more of an acute observer as the book advances. A little too shy for Vicky's high school schemes, he watches all and sees the essence of what is going on.

The relationship between Sleator and Vicky is a very close one, and they are also close to Danny and Tycho, their sometimes victims. In Oddballs, the younger brothers do not get to spread their wings as fully as do Sleator and Vicky, but their presence is persistently felt. Five years of changing Tycho's diapers is bound to create some kind of intimacy, but why it takes five years for Tycho to shed his diapers tells much about the person who will evolve. For over two years he was "that other kid" or "Newby" (as in "the new baby") before he was given a real name, and then it was a compromise among several choices: Tycho Barney George Clement Newby Sleator.

Having an abusive older brother [Danny], and the fact that everybody started calling him by a completely different name when he was two, were probably the seeds that resulted in Tycho's first great act of independence: He refused to be toilet trained.

Psychologists may have their own views of the traumas caused by toilet training, but Sleator takes a fiction writer's approach to using Tycho's resistance to expose personality traits. Tycho's declaration that he will use the toilet when five years old and his doing so on his fifth birthday reveal a child who is very intelligent—he can set deadlines, knows what they mean, and meets them—and very stubborn. This is the Tycho of Oddballs, brilliant and determined.

Oddballs is primarily a study of character—Sleator's and others—and its theme, the uncomplicated one of how a person grows, is therefore subordinate. The theme engenders obvious questions such as how did he grow, what made him grow, did he grow in every way? This theme subtly keeps the focus of the book on Sleator himself, even when a vignette may emphasize the actions of others. In "Pituh-plays," for instance, the bizarre recital in Mr. Minkoff's studio is not really Sleator's idea, and the emphasis is on the strangeness of the overall performance, not on Sleator's own playing of a Brahms intermezzo to the accompaniment of grinding noises near the piano. Vicky then gives the grand finale and produces the first performance of Vanya, the Insane Pianist (Sleator says that she can still be persuaded to perform the piece, to the delight of her children). Yet, the abiding image is Sleator giving a recital in a studio clamorous with noise and increasing chaos, a scene that almost perfectly prefigures his adult role as the rehearsal pianist for the Boston Ballet.

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