August 18, 2015 by Jason Seligson
It’s fitting that I both started and finished Bill Konigsberg’s The Porcupine of Truth in a car. So much of the book is about getting behind the wheel and going for a drive–about having destination in mind, but not quite knowing how you’re going to get there. The stage is set at the very beginning of the novel–when our protagonist Carsen Smith reunites with his ailing father. Carsen was only three years old when his father left, which makes much of their unforeseen reunion rather awkward. But once hat his grandfather may be alive, he sets off on a journey to reconnect him with his own father before it’s too late.
In some ways, Porupine feels like a spiritual successor to John Green’s Paper Towns, but with more of a focus on family than romance. That said, there is a romance in the novel, just a platonic one. And it’s pretty fantastic, too. Any initial skepticism I had about Aisha and Carsen’s friendship developing too quickly subsided the more I read; both characters have such an incredible connection to one another that you can’t help but be drawn into their lives. I also love how their relationship is frequently tested: they’re constantly making mistakes with one another, learning about each other’s flaws, as well as their own.
When we first meet Carsen, he’s a pretty jaded, lonely person. He’s at an interesting crossroads: history is about to repeat itself and he’s on the verge of making the same mistakes his father and grandfather did. A life of alcoholism and isolation is what will probably await Carsen if he doesn’t start opening up to people. That includes his father, who interestingly, has had his own lifelong struggles with accepting his father, a man who also abandoned his family (and of course, taking after his father, he eventually does this to Carsen too). One of the most powerful, heartbreaking scenes in the book is when Carsen’s father drinks too much and deliriously confuses Carsen for his own father.
Throughout the book, Carsen is desperately struggling with how to connect to his dad, and to anyone, really, which is why it’s so wonderful to see Aisha and all of the other people he meets on his search affect him in different ways. Collectively, they help Carsen find his way out of his own loneliness; throughout so much of the story, we hear about what Carsen doesn’t believe in, but by the end, he’s been allowed to actively question and reevaluate what he does.
The novel’s exploration of faith is handled really sensitively. Not everyone Carsen and Aisha meets are welcoming or open-minded. They have own beliefs, despite how much Aisha may want to yell at them. But this makes the characters feel that much more real. Aisha’s father feels like the most stereotypical character (although one that exists), but the majority of the other other adults in the story seem to be quite comfortable and accepting when it comes to their religious beliefs. In fact, one of the best lines comes from of the women Carsen and Aisha crash with while on the road. Carsen has been openly struggling with the concept of a higher power, and this woman responds “Whatever it is that a person believes about God is totally, completely, irrevocably true–but only if you add two words. For me.” It’s the perfect explanation of both the kind of faith a devout worshiper can have, or a skeptic like Carsen. One of the major themes at play here is that no one owns the concept of religion, and no one, not Aisha’s father, nor anyone else can tell her something is true for her just because they believe it’s true for them.
Konigsberg is a fantastic writer, one who unfortunately is still relatively under the radar in the YA world. With ‘The Porcupine of Truth,’ he deftly navigates questions about religion and sexuality without ever making it feel like an “issues” story. He has also managed to do something I don’t think I’ve seen done before in YA or Adult fiction, and that is crafting such humorous, naturalistic dialogue that feels like it’s been lifted right from a sitcom script. The two most essential ingredients to this novel are humor and heart. That’s a tough balance to achieve. I guess you could say–and I think this would make Carsen and punsters everywhere happy, with Porcupine, Konigsberg nails it.