Your Compassion is Limited to Literature

When Late Lights hit the stands readers’ reacted to the lives of Monty, Erin, and BJ with sensitivity. Many who had had children in the public schools felt personally culpable for ignoring kids like Monty and BJ – often to the point of forgetting they existed. They were struck by the magnitude of all three’s problems. And some readers, I imagine, hated the book for all these reasons (and perhaps others).

There is one sentiment, however, that was repeatedly written, and often voiced, that I initially took as proof that I had done a good job as a biographer of these fictional characters, but that I ultimately came to find frustrating (to put it mildly).

Readers love Monty. They want to adopt him.

When I conceived of Monty as a character it was important to me that I make him real. I didn’t want him to be too good, or too misunderstood. Instead, I worked to make him a full, dynamic kid. He gets into trouble because he does bad things. He’s violent, and occasionally out of control. Yet readers love him.

Why? Because they get to know him. They come to understand why he behaves as he does, and they see his good qualities in addition to his criminal ones. He is no different than most of the boys in juvenile detention. They have done some truly bad things, but there are parts of them that are genuinely good. They are loyal, funny, insightful, sensitive, scared, regretful. They’re kids. Kids who have been dealt a really shit hand.

Readers love Monty. But if they met him in real life, they would likely recoil at the idea of him becoming a friend of their kid’s. They would see nothing but the suspensions, the clothes, the language. They would see a bad influence. A bad kid. They would never love him as they do in Late Lights because they would never know him.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that every parent should embrace every delinquent who shows up in their kids’ schools.

But maybe we should give them a chance.

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