Let’s get one thing out of the way before we go any further: as much as I’m an unabashed fan of cartoonist-turned-author Stephan Pastis (Pearls Before Swine) when it comes to his publishing endeavors thus far I lean more towards his cartoonist efforts than author. There’s an undeniable spark in his comic strip work that simply towers over many of peers, so much so that its empowered Pastis to lob (well deserved) shots at a genre (comic strips) that’s become comfortably complacent.
And little of that spark was captured in Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, the first book in what’s destined to be a successful series, which felt more like the product it most likely was. Not that I blame Pastis wanting to cash in while he can; these by-the-numbers genre books are big business and best strike while the iron is hot. But I can call him out for how perilously close the Timmy Failure books are to plagiarising, almost wholesale, elements from the likes of Calvin & Hobbes and Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Let’s take a look at the evidence. Disturbed little boy with imaginary friend whose main antagonist is a precious little girl (who earns her own misspelled acronym) who’s simply better than him at everything? Check. Journaled narrative about trying to fit in school while interacting with a cast of zany characters, most of them stereotypes, accompanied by line doodles? Double check. For an artist that loves to call out his peers for laziness to innovate it’s a shame he doesn’t follow his own advice here. Pot, meet Kettle.
That said, it’s no surprise that Now Look What You’ve Done (or Timmy Failure Book 2 if that’s how you count these things) is a slight improvement over the first, though not by much. Sequels like this usually are.
Like so many of these books aimed at younger readers, at least those working from a template for books aimed at younger readers, there’s really a handful of things at play here: the main plot, which sees Timmy trying to win a multi-school detective contest, Timmy’s interactions with the cast, and the hijinks of watching Timmy’s real ‘failures’ to live up to the world’s expectations for him.
Things start off sour when our distinctly-scarved hero attempts to save the reputation of Maury’s Museum of World Records where a statue of Carl Kobalinski, mistakenly touted as the “World’s Smartest Man”, by removing the sign. Things don’t quite as planned and Timmy topples over, decapitating poor Carl and leaving Timmy with a busted leg, but otherwise no worse for wear.
A surprise detective contest involving a ‘stolen’ globe, with its grand prize of $500, could mean big things for the Total Failure Detective Agency, and Timmy’s got eyes on the prize. But to get there he’ll have to do battle against not just other schools, but a zero tolerance bureaucracy that is anything but forgiving. Life can be pretty unfair when you’re a genius destined for greatness.
The ancillary cast all play their part by showing up and doing their thing. Most notable is Total, his 1,500 polar bear and business partner in Total Failure Detective Agency. Then there’s Rollo Tookus, his rotund and boring, grade-grubbing best friend, and Molly Moskins, the girl with one pupil bigger than the other whose biggest crime may be that she’s utterly smitten with Timmy.
New to the cast is Great Aunt Colander, a recent widow, who lives in a house so big that she invites Timmy and his mother to stay with them. Turns out that she’s got big dreams of selling a set of wheels that attach to your shoes, Shoewheels, if she can ever get them working right. Fat chance on that happening anytime soon.
And then there’s Corrina Corrina, aka the WEDGIE (Worldwide Enemy of Da Goodness In Everything), Timmy’s constant rival and possibly Satan in disguise. She factors less here than in the first book but remains a looming presence nonetheless.
The rest of the book is general zaniness, with several attempts to create memorable – or at least highly chantable – catchphrases like “Mendacity!” or “Shenanigans!”
One issue I have with these books is how dangerously close they are to mocking what’s fast becoming a modern plague in the educational system: the stifling of young boys’ enthusiasm by any means necessary, increasingly by psychiatric means. If you’re an educator reading this and don’t think there’s a problem, than you’re part of it.
Timmy is a clearly troubled young boy who may suffer from some very serious developmental difficulties. With a make-believe friend and overstimulated delusions of grandeur we’d love to think him a close cousin to Watterson’s Calvin, but he’s actually more aligned with Pastis’ own sociopathic Rat (from Pearls). Where Watterson was able to filter Calvin’s inner struggles against the world through a prism of pure imagination and genuine warmth, Pastis’ Timmy feels like an assembly of parts carefully chosen not to offend select groups.
Timmy’s actions lead to very real consequences, beyond breaking both his legs just in this book alone. He wantonly commits vandalism, hurls insults towards those that show him affection, and seems oblivious to the world around him. He doesn’t seem to learn that much from his mistakes, or seems aware he’s even made them (I won’t spoil one of the story’s ultimate conclusions but I found it cruel and wrong). We learn that he’s in therapy, that his single mom struggles to find any meaningful employment, and the family is dangerously close to being homeless.
So you’ll forgive me when I think later scenes of affection or attempts to engender sympathy for his behavior ring false. Maybe I’m overthinking things, but I just hope that in his next adventure we don’t learn he’s been placed on a regiment of psychotropic drugs to help ‘control’ his impulses.
For what it’s worth, Now Look What You’ve Done is a slight improvement over the first Timmy Failure book, yet still retains many of that book’s failings. There’s no constant narrator, making the story feel as genuine as a shopping list. None of the characters feel genuine, especially Timmy, whose personal issues seem designed to make readers laugh at and not with him. In a school system seemingly at war with male adolescence there may be little rejoicing when the effects of hijinks leads to very real consequences, unlike the fictional Timmy. Still, the artwork is fun and for many incompetent educators that’s all that really counts.
A final parting shot tells me there’s another Timmy Failure adventure on its way later this year, so I imagine we’ll be doing this again soon enough.