I’m not familiar with Danny King’s writing, but when my wife saw School for Scumbags, King’s latest book, she thought it sounded fun an interesting. I read it after her, and I have to agree. It’s good, light reading about criminal boys and the lifelong criminals who keep them corrupted. The writing is crisp, and the book is only marred by some extraneous scenes and not being as funny as the concept sounded.
Wayne Banstead is the bane of the English public school system. He’s a delinquent and always will be, bouncing from school to school as his activities get him expelled. Wayne’s family are at the end of their rope, and they finally decide to send him to the Gafin School for Misdirected Boys, which claims to be an expert on dealing with these types of youths. But there’s more to the school than anybody else knows, and Wayne finally finds himself at home. He’s learning how to be better at what he is, not being cured. As the school term goes on, he and his newfound friends (and nemeses as well) find themselves graduating to the major leagues. What they find there may scare them straight, or it may just reinforce everything they believe in.
School for Scumbags is an interesting concept, and as the story builds it becomes even more interesting. Is this a school that teaches delinquents how to be better crooks, or is there something more in mind? Getting to these answers is intriguing, especially with King’s colloquial writing. These kids and their instructors are rough and tumble characters, swearing up a storm, looking at porn and getting into fights. I love some of the examinations, too, as the instructors are trying to find out just what kind of delinquents they have on hand.
King asks the reader to take a lot on faith, though. None of the parents do even a bit of research before plunking their kids in this school. I guess they’re pretty desperate, as the school is brand new and has no reputation whatsoever. How do they know the school’s faculty members are experts in guiding boys away from the criminal path? I can see parents like Wayne’s doing this, as they don’t seem to be too with it either, but there are initially around 20 students enrolled in Wayne’s class. None of them did any research?
That being said, once you buy into the situation, the story moves along very nicely, with good pacing, excellent dialogue and humorous situations that bring a chuckle or two. The characters are interesting, fleshed out only as necessary. That’s okay in a caper book, though, as you’re not looking for deep characterization in a book like this. School for Scumbags is told in first-person by Wayne, so it’s enough that he’s fairly deep. He actually starts to learn a few things toward the end of the book, but you can’t tell whether they stick with him or not, for reasons I can’t go into without divulging the ending.
And the ending is actually one of the problems with the book. When we finally find out who Wayne is telling his story to, it doesn’t make any sense at all. Without giving too much away, it goes against the very reason that Gefin was set up in the first place. Unless Wayne is going about things completely differently, there’s no way he’d tell this story to the audience he’s in front of.
The other main problem with the book is that there are several extraneous scenes, especially the soccer game that parents attend in the middle of the school session. Wayne and the rest of the boys set up a sweepstakes scam for who will be the top scorer, getting all of the parents involved. The scene drags on a bit too long and really has nothing to do with the plot, though it is the funniest part of the book. That’s not saying much for the humor in the rest of the book, but I laughed the loudest during this sequence, and it doesn’t even make any sense! While the parents are booing about everything being fixed, they don’t do anything about it. They’re getting fleeced, and the worst they’re going to do is boo? That’s logical. The way King writes the scene, though, it’s hilarious and the dialogue is perfect.
Overall, School for Scumbags is a nice little caper novel, one I could see a movie made out of easily. King seems to be able to get at the heart of the criminal mindset, and his dialogue rings true. While the situations are a bit outlandish, once you accept them they’re also very well-written. There are a few too many coincidences (the kids steal something from the school and try to sell it on the street, and they just happen upon a fence? Please). But, overall, King has written a fun novel that will keep you reading until the end.