"Everyone who almost-made-it-but-didn't lives in Queens." This is among the many revelations in Tim Federle's debut novel, Better Nate Than Ever (Simon & Schuster). It's a charming and funny tale of New York City that will captivate the imaginations of young performers dreaming of the Great White Way and lead even the most jaded professional actor/waiters reading in their Astoria apartments to fall in love with the city all over again.
Told in first person by thirteen-year-old Nate Foster, Better Nate Than Ever chronicles his amazing escape from Jankburg, Pennsylvania to the bright lights of New York City. He's leaving because, as one would expect for an overweight four-foot-eight boy obsessed with show tunes, life in suburban Pennsylvania totally sucks. Also, he wants to audition for a part in E.T.: The Musical, a big new Broadway show that's holding an open casting call.
Nate and his BFF Libby have been geeking out about Broadway for years, substituting swear words with the titles of infamous flops for ("Oh, Carrie!" "Holy Dance of the Vampires!") and recording versions of Jason Robert Brown's "I'd Give it All For You" that sound like lesbian rock ballads. But is enthusiasm enough? Will Nate be able to make it on Broadway with just a few dollars, his older brother's fake ID, and a dream?
Since the audition takes place at Ripley-Grier Studios, much of the action of the book takes place in that shady lady part of Hell's Kitchen just south of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Federle does a superb job of bringing this, and several other New York neighborhoods to life with his vivid descriptions of $1 pizza and bargain denim retailers, complete with running commentary from the precocious Nate: the whole thing very much feels like a less-depressing Catcher in the Rye, with stage moms.
Federle has crafted an intelligent, perceptive, and witty protagonist in Nate. Like most adolescents, Nate stifles his best one-liners out of habit (his sass usually leads to a pummeling from school bullies), but we the readers are lucky enough to be inside his head, listening to them. "I guess all British people are experts on acting and accents and scene-work and dramatic structure, or something," he muses after receiving a brush off from E.T.'s opinionated British choreographer, Garret Charles.
Indeed, Federle is hilariously acerbic in his take on the "creatives" and other fixtures of Broadway auditions: a casting assistant named "Beckany," a bitter ex-gypsy dance teacher, and two bearded boys with clipboards named "Mark" and "Marc" are among the grotesque characters that populate Ripley-Grier. They refer to each other as "Olivier Award-winning ___s" (and other such ridiculous titles) and are generally obnoxious people.
But Nate can't get enough and his zeal for all things Broadway shines off the page, not in a vomit-inducing let's-talk-about-Wicked-for-three-hundred-pages way, but in the sense of an alien encountering a foreign world and being totally mesmerized. Every step of the way you watch Nate feel that, more and more, this is the place he truly belongs--and you really hope he is right, even if doubt lurks around every page.
Better Nate Than Ever lives in the sweet spot of young adult novels, mixing hard truths with just the right amount of the fantastical. The situations and characters feel real (as one would expect from a four-time Broadway veteran like Federle) and the tone is never condescending. It's a strong work for a first-time author and more importantly, a very fun read.