TOM HAZUKA’S NOVEL for young adults, Last Chance for First, proves that inside every grown man lurks the kid he once was, and I mean this as a compliment. Sometimes the kid is buried so deep, his spirit is all but crushed. But the kid in Hazuka is alive and well, and has the starring role in his story.
The wonder is that Hazuka has managed not only to tap into that turbulent adolescent psyche, he has pretty well transplanted it into a character who talks the way kids do today and who deals with today’s complicated realities.
Robby wants to do the right thing, but he also wants to win maybe not at all costs, but pretty close to it. He’s a junior in high school, co-captain of the soccer team, and the younger brother of a superstar football player.
He likes a girl who bleaches her hair white and wears a gold ring in her nose. This girl, Pet, says and does things that make it seem like she doesn’t care what people think. Robby finds this intriguing but, at the same time, potentially embarrassing.
Almost everything in Robby’s life is either potentially embarrassing, morally ambiguous, or frustratingly complex. Sometimes there isn’t any right answer. Or maybe there is a right answer, but it interferes with the all-important battle of winning or losing.
What do you do if your sadistic soccer coach goes too far in punishing one of your teammates? If you object, you might lose your chance for a soccer scholarship. Worse than that, you might be considered a whiner or a wimp. Or a rat.
What do you do if your best friend crashes his car, and everyone asks you if he was driving drunk, and you figure he probably was?
What if your girlfriend tells you a secret about her past that you don’t know how to deal with?
The plot twists around a lot of issues recognizable to kids in high school, and it does the all-important job of keeping those pages turning. You never know what’s going to happen next; the story is told chronologically, in the first person.
Robby’s voice is sometimes so true to his developing maturity that it’s really touching (“I wanted to help him, but what could I do? This was private pain, nothing some kid could fix.”), and other times so ripe with trash talk it made me wince (“Dude, what did that asswipe say to get you so pissed off?”).
There is one character in the book that has to be the author’s alter ego Mr. McLaughlin, the guitar-playing, wisdom-dispensing teacher of creative writing: “In life the winner isn’t always the one with the best score.” Mr. Mac has his own problems, but that’s another story.
Robby’s a likeable character and the conflicts he faces make for interesting reading. His relationship with Pet is sensitively described. His thoughts about his parents sound fairly typical.
His love of soccer shines through the several well-developed scenes played out on the soccer field are full of excitement and struggle. It is probably not an overstatement to say that this is the arena where the boy’s passion finds its most vigorous expression.
Sharon Dirlam, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of Beyond Siberia, a nonfiction narrative about her Peace Corps service, and two stories published in Travelers' Tales: A Woman's World. She has placed one novel with a literary agent and is working on a second.