In 2001, Independent's reviewer, Michael Salkind described Pete Fromm's first novel, How All This Started, as "disturbing and scary and beautiful and exhilarating and sexy." Fromm's writing, said Salkind, "is the literary equivalent of a top-down ride through the desert."
Fromm's new novel, As Cool As I Am (Picador: New York, $23/hardcover), is more like a hitch on an 18-wheeler through the Great Plains of Montana, covering once again the stark country of adolescence, seen this time through the eyes of a young girl growing up way too fast.
Lucy Diamond, the protagonist, is a tough tomboy, navigating her way toward adulthood while trying to understand her disappearing father and her chronically dissatisfied mother. Wise-cracking, smart and determined to hide her vulnerability, Lucy rolls her eyes at the world and her mother while discovering sex with her best friend Kenny and dreaming of the adventure life will become once she escapes Great Falls.
"I wanted to write about a girl who was really funny, tough and smart, who would look back one day to when she was a girl, when her whole personality was about this huge change in her life," said Fromm in a recent telephone conversation from his home in Montana. Lucy, he explained, was a character who came to him unformed, as did Abilene, the manic-depressive teen-age sister in How All This Started.
"I didn't expect to find myself writing about teen-agers and sex," he said. "If I had, it might have been a little more daunting to write the female point of view."
Fromm interviewed people from Planned Parenthood and talked to friends with teen-age kids and to kids themselves to make sure his take on Lucy's burgeoning sexuality was accurate.
"I was talking to a high school girl -- a junior at the time, a beautiful, popular girl -- and she said, 'I don't have a single class where there's not a mother in it.'
"There have been a few reviews of the book that run through a character summary and it sounds terribly depressing," said Fromm. "When [the complications in their lives] are spelled out that way, it sounds like a freak show. But really, I think it's pretty normal."
Certainly normal are Lucy's feelings of estrangement and bewilderment regarding her parents -- a father who leaves home for long periods of time, returning less and less frequently, and a mother who is behaving differently around other men.
"I think it's intriguing what we know of our parents, our perception that they didn't really have lives until we came along," said Fromm. "With Lucy, she's just getting to that age where she wonders, 'Is it normal that Dad's always gone? What's the deal with Mom?' She's seeing that what was [her picture of her family] wasn't really as good as she thought it was."
Wary of being pigeonholed as a young adult author, Fromm says his next book will be written from a man's point of view, that he will be giving up the first-person point of view of an adolescent girl, at least for a while. But he loves Lucy and Abilene, and values the perspective they bring to his writing.
"Those [adolescent] years are fascinating because so much is at stake," he said. "Everything is in upheaval.
"Coming of age has come to be sort of a snotty thing to say about a book, but I love [those books]. And family is, I think, at the heart of most of the fiction I love."
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Pete Fromm will sign and read from As Cool As I Am
Thursday, Oct. 2, 5:30 p.m.
The Chinook Bookshop, 210 N. Tejon St.