My book club chose The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell (2018) by Robert Dugoni for our next book club book. I had not heard of the book or the author, but my friend said she liked it, and I was hoping to as well. The plot is a coming-of-age story of a boy in Burlingame, California who was born with ocular albinism in the late 1950’s. The only consequence of Sam’s ocular albinism is that it makes his irises red. However, he is known as “the devil boy” in school and instead of Sam Hill, he is called Sam Hell.
Being different from others can certainly make your life more difficult–especially when you are young. When he first goes to school, Sam’s life is made even worse by an incredibly mean bully, David Batemen. Fortunately, he also makes the best friend of his life, Ernie Cantwell. Ernie is the only black child in the school and is also an outsider. Only a couple of years later, Mickie (Michaela) Kennedy joins their little pariah group of friends. Mickie’s family life is not great, but we don’t really learn many specifics about her except that she’s something of a rebel with a reputation.*
At first, I was mildly interested in this book, but my interest waned as my annoyance with the book increased. I’m not even sure where to start, but after reading for awhile, the story felt like a series of problems that were easily solved and/or set ups to make our protagonist look good. Sam struggled with a bully, David Bateman, but then Bateman’s friends ratted him out, and Sam’s problems were solved! Sam was very sad he didn’t have a bike, but then his dad goes and buys him a brand new one! Sam really wanted a car when he turned sixteen, and then his parents give him a classic convertible! Sam had the best grades in high school, but there was some weird thing where he wouldn’t be Valedictorian. But then he gets into Stanford and somehow survives after all! Honestly, Sam started annoying me.
I also felt that not much was happening in this book. And that’s fine. But if there’s not much action, then there has to be really good characters, and I didn’t find that in this book. Ernie, as the only black child in the neighborhood–who also struggled with dyslexia–could have been a much more interesting character if he did more than just support Sam and be good at sports. In addition, Mickie, was some kind of manic-pixie-dream girl that we learn almost nothing about, and Sam often treats her like shit. Every once in a while he gets sad or angry and attacks her for being a slut. She’s also the person that just hangs around forever waiting for him. Her story also could have been much more interesting, and I don’t understand why she liked Sam at all.
At some point in the story, I started wondering why Sam’s red eyes were such a big deal. It’s really minor compared to what a lot of people have to deal with. And when he gets older, he gets brown contacts, which make him completely normal. At the end of the book, Dugoni mentions that the story may be a little bit inspired by his youngest brother who was born with Down Syndrome. I kind of wish Dugoni had written that story because Sam’s red eyes became pretty meaningless as soon as he got out of elementary school.
One storyline that really irritated me was Sam’s first sexual experience with a girl named Donna, who worked at his father’s pharmacy. Sam is fascinated with Donna’s large breasts and happily sleeps with her often even though she doesn’t want to be seen out and about with him. When she leaves for school a week early, her father tells her that it’s because her parents caught her sleeping with another boy. Her parents apparently told their daughter’s boss (back when people cared more about these things) that their daughter was caught with a boy and who it was–just so Sam’s dad could relay all that to Sam who gets some very convenient closure. And Dugoni adds on a tiny bit of information about Donna at the end just to pile on, which seemed unnecessary and unjustified.
This happened with the bully, David Batemen, as well. The hero, Sam, is treated “badly,” and the story comes up with some way to get rid of them. Bateman is thrown out of school, and beaten by his abusive parents, which no one seems to care about. And Sam’s first love is dressed down as a slut and sent away to school.
By this point in the book, I felt disconnected from the characters and did not care much what happened to them. I was curious to know how it ended, and I did finish it, but on the whole I was disappointed.
*Until the very end, where out of the blue, Mickie tells Sam that she had a hysterectomy when she was younger for reasons that are not explained.
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