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The Spy Who Loved Me

When I was in primary school, I was given a dusty volume from an annual series of Edwardian adventure stories for kids. Nelson’s Jolly Book for Boys featured tales of courageous Boy Scouts intervening in colonial crises, teenaged detectives solving heinous crimes, scholarship students testing their mettle on the playing fields of fancy private schools, adolescents besting brutish pirates in the tradition of Treasure Island, etc. — pretty much the whole spectrum of classic juvenile pulp.

I devoured these stories of brave, brainy kids negotiating the perils of the adult world, outwitting villains and bullies in pursuit of justice and truth. Only much later did I comprehend the noxious ideological content, nicely summarized by the scholar Peter Hugill as forging “links between manliness, sports, communal and Christian responsibility and empire.”

That grim agenda is gleefully exploded in No Good About Goodbye, a hilarious, vastly entertaining YA novel that turns the Boys’ Adventure tradition on its head. (The book also cleverly mines the James Bond saga, reminding us that Ian Fleming’s novels were essentially grownup versions of the Edwardian pulps, updated to accommodate the Cold War).

Get ready for a boisterous caper tale, an action-packed spy spoof seasoned with screwball humor, popcult savvy, and genuine insight into the lives and thoughts of contemporary city kids. No Good About Goodbye is an intentionally outrageous narrative that might have been designed to subvert every item on Hugill’s list. It’s a blistering critique of hypocritical Christianity, organized athletics, imperial machinations, and toxic masculinity. And its spirited, precocious young protagonists are gay. What’s not to like?

A summary can’t do justice to the fast-moving, kaleidoscopic plot, but I’ll try. Fleeing a murderous pack of enemy agents, fifteen-year-old Ian, the sophisticated scion of a family of spies, is thrown together with Will, an undocumented immigrant struggling to cope with vicious bullies and a soul-killing family life. They find themselves with only seven days to stop a world war — and to discover their feelings for each other. Ensuing escapades combine the anarchic spirit of a Richard Lester film with a fresh take on the conventions of spy thrillers.

No Good About Goodbye might not be a close relative of Pushing Pawns, but perhaps the two books are fond distant cousins. Both feature gritty urban settings, verbally agile teenagers, and plenty of Italian dialogue. Both are designed to appeal to smart kids; neither talks down to young readers. And both, coincidentally, pay tribute to the great but rarely acknowledged history of "mixed marriages" between Sicilian- and African-Americans.

If you liked Pushing Pawns, please give No Good About Goodbye a whirl. I was hooked from Page One.

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