Man o’ War

Dutton. May 2022. 336p. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780593353707.
Gr 9 Up–Swim team phenom River McIntyre is caustic, impulsive, infinitely angry, and at war with the world—and with themselves. River feels as trapped in small-town Ohio, and in their own body, as the ocean life at the local marine life theme park, SeaPlanet, must feel. It’s at SeaPlanet where River first encounters nonbinary former classmate Indy, and River’s world shifts, beginning to tentatively grapple with their internalized homophobia and self-destructive, self-negating survival tactics. The story follows River from sophomore year of high school to adulthood, skipping large intervals of time, a risky narrative tactic that McCarthy employs successfully. River’s identity and labels change as years pass, but they remain adrift and aching, drowning in dysphoria and trauma responses. River cobbles together a wonderful chosen family, Indy comes and goes, and River briefly becomes a national sensation when a college newspaper article goes viral about River, now identifying as trans, not being allowed on the men’s swim team. In this intimate and deeply character-driven story, the exceptional writing exquisitely captures River’s cutting but self-protective voice. River is both venomous and vulnerable as they learn that life is about explorations, not definitions, and that coming out is not a linear process. Though this is an intense and often painful read, McCarthy makes it clear that there is joy and love to be found in moving from the captivity of anger and pain to the liberation of being able to be exactly who you are.
VERDICT Equal parts heartbreaking and heartwarming, this is a poignant, affirming story.

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