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Literature / Whale Talk

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Cutter High School has a storied athletic history, and senior and outcast T.J. Jones is tired of the caste system it enables amongst its students. So what better way to fight back than to form a swim team full of fellow outcasts to claim the school's precious and revered varsity letter jackets?

First problem: Cutter High School doesn't have a pool. Second problem: He's the only one who's any good at swimming.

Whale Talk, written by acclaimed author Chris Crutcher, won several awards following its 2001 publication. A film adaptation was announced to be in development in 2015.

Tropes applicable to this book include:

  • Abusive Parents: Good God. T.J.'s birth mom, Rich Marshall, Alicia Marshall’s parents and Alicia herself to an extent, two of Andy's moms boyfriends, Simon’s mom, Carly's father, Canada Smith…
  • Acrofatic: Simon.
  • Asian and Nerdy: T.J. is noted to do very well in class.
  • Badass Teacher: Mr. Simet. He was a collegiate swimmer and a coach on the one hand; on the other, he plays the athletic department like a fiddle to get his way and does not tolerate injustice or other such bullshit from others.
  • Bait-and-Switch:
    • One night after swim practice, T.J. notices a car following him and assumes it to be Rich. After a few minutes of trying to lose the car, he finally stops to confront the driver…who turns out to be Chris’s aunt. She wanted to thank T.J. for being so good to Chris.
    • When Rich storms onto the basketball court with his rifle, T.J. and the reader think that he’s going after T.J. or John, but then he aims at Heidi, and then John jumps in the way instead.
  • Broken Bird: Alicia.
  • Chekhov's Gun: After a playroom therapy session with Georgia, Heidi tries to figure out how much washing with soap it would take to make her skin white. No one realizes how deeply this sentiment has sunk into her until Abby finds her scrubbing her skin off with a Brillo pad (a pad made of steel wool imbued with dish soap) at Rich’s suggestion, after Alicia nulls the restraining order she had on him with an ill-advised visit with her kids.
  • Chocolate Baby: Due to TJ's skin being a different color than anyone in either of their families, his biological mom and her husband found out that he was conceived during an affair.
  • Cool Big Bro: Before his tragic death, Chris's older half-brother Brian treated him well and kept people from bullying him. This is especially noticeable, given that the two of them were raised in separate homes after Brian's dad got full custody of him after leaving Chris's mom.
  • Disabled Snarker: The one-legged Mott has a whiplash of a tongue.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Barbour is appropriately horrified when Rich grabs his hunting rifle after the basketball game and kills John.
  • Extreme Doormat: Alicia and Kristen Sweetwater, though both start to recover towards the end of the novel.
  • The Ghost: Alicia's ex (Heidi's father) left town after being paralyzed in an accident and never physically appears.
  • Gotta Kill 'Em All: Played for laughs. When the bus crashes, Mott asks the team which one person they want killed in the extreme hypothetical situation that Mott is the only one to survive and be rescued. Icko suggests the snowplow driver that ran them off the road, but then Simon’s immediate answer is his mom.
  • Happily Adopted: T.J.
  • Hates Being Alone: T.J. had serious abandonment issues growing up.
  • Heel Realization: Barbour, after Rich shoots John.
  • Honor Before Reason: T.J. tends to react impulsively to slights and injustices to others. This is perhaps best expressed when Mark Barbour sexually assaults and beats on Kristen Sweetwater and T.J., in a rage, gets in his car to chase him down. In the process he damages his car and incurs a speeding ticket, and his parents are quick to ask him what he would have accomplished had he caught up to Barbour anyway.
  • Hunting Is Evil: Early in the book TJ describes an incident where he tries and fails to protect a young deer from Rich Marshall, the first of many reasons him and Rich don't get along.. He had overheard Rich talking about having killed a mother deer, and that he wanted to get a tag so he could kill the fawn aswell. TJ goes to where the fawn is hoping to protect it, but Rich and his buddies arrive soon after. TJ tries to shield it with his own body, thinking they won't risk shooting him. His buddies trying beating him up first, but when that doesn't work Rich simply puts the muzzle of his rifle right against its head and pulls the trigger. TJ is horrified when he feels it's life drain from its body, and thinks hunting, particularly for sport alone, is horrible. At the end Rich tries to kill Heidi using the same hunting rifle, but TJ's father takes the shot instead.
  • It's Personal: Chris is brain-damaged from being abused by his mom's boyfriend. TJ is also the child of a neglectful single parent who had abusive boyfriends, and feels he could have easily ended up exactly like Chris, so he views any bullying of Chris the same way he'd feel if he was the victim.
  • Jack of All Stats: T.J. and Simet are both adept athletes in water and on land. Mott doesn’t fare too badly, either.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Multiple characters were born to unmarried characters, sometimes through one night stands, while TJ's adoptive parents had four miscarriages while trying for a kid.
  • Loophole Abuse: At their first swim meet, judges are uncertain as to whether Mott can legally participate—his stroke requires his legs to move in perfect symmetry but, well, he only has ‘’one’’ leg. Dan suggests disqualifying Mott from one event, but not the other.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Alicia’s marriage to the black Willis was not received well.
  • Mama Bear and Papa Wolf: Lord help you if you wrong T.J., Heidi, or any children; Abby and John Paul Jones will destroy you.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Tay-Roy is ripped and he knows it, as a former bodybuilder. Played for laughs when it comes to light that Mott and even Dan have been using his pictures to catfish women in Alabama and Illinois.
  • My Greatest Failure: John’s unintentional killing of a toddler when he was a truck driver. It still haunts him, decades after the fact.
  • The Nondescript: Swim team member Jackie Craig is described as a "chameleon" who looks and acts so averagely that if he robbed a bank, no one would be able to describe him.
  • Percussive Therapy: Part of Georgia’s playroom therapy involves allowing children to act out their frustrations on inanimate objects.
  • Plot-Driven Breakdown: When the team’s bus gets driven off an icy road on the way home from their first meet, it gives them plenty of time to start bonding.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Rich and Barbour are both openly racist.
  • Pom-Pom Girl: TJ's girlfriend Carly spent a few months as a cheerleader before deciding she liked basketball better. Her best friend Kristen is still a cheerleader and is an Extreme Doormat Domestic Abuse victim who never looks down on the "losers".
  • Prosthetic Limb Reveal: Mott, a few times: First, the first time he shows up to training (T.J. almost can't tell him that the exercise they're doing is kicks); the second time invoked at the first meet, dramatically revealing his leg to the audience, to draw attention away from Simon (and then presumably at every meet after); the third time at the varsity letter ceremony in front of the whole school.
  • The Quiet One: Jackie hardly ever speaks a word the entire book.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The entire swimming team, deliberately so thanks to T.J.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: As Mott put it, his mom’s old boyfriend Canada Smith “couldn’t figure out which bed he was supposed to sleep in.” He’s the one person Mott wants killed in the hypothetical detailed under Gotta Kill 'Em All.
    Mott: Got to do it slow, though.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Both of T.J.'s parents and Simet.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Dan's default setting. Icko turns it against him, requiring him to do ten push-ups every time he uses a word Icko doesn't understand.
  • The Shrink: Georgia is a Type 3.
  • Taking the Bullet: John jumps in front of a bullet meant for Heidi.
  • There Are No Therapists: Averted. T.J. received therapy from Georgia for years for his anger and abandonment issues; Heidi sees her for her abuse at Rich’s hands. Mott also refers to having a therapist, and Alicia received counseling from Child Protective Services. Rich was supposed to attend therapy, but as T.J. puts it, it got in the way of his drinking time.
  • Throwing the Fight: T.J. throws the state championship to spite Cutter's athletic department.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Everyone on the swim team.
    • Alicia takes a level when she throws herself over her children when Rich storms onto the basketball court with a gun.
  • Villain of Another Story: Plenty of racists and domestic abusers who have little or nothing to do with TJ are clearly the villains of someone else's story. Most notably, there's Rance Haskins, a drug dealer who's dated many women and abused their kids: killing one baby, blinding another, and causing a third (Mott) to lose his leg.
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: T.J. is short for The Tao Jones.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Rich Marshall beats Heidi, and later tells her to use a Brillo pad to scrub her dark skin away, and ultimately tries to shoot her.