As I grew up, my mom championed the art of tableside manners. The thought of throwing a fistful of meatballs at my younger brother was an unrequited dream. I was taught that, when at the table, certain things have a certain place to be.
A glass of water belongs far away from the table’s treacherous precipice. Feet belong on the floor, not the chair. I am not to ravenously impale my meals with my silverware, displaying the carnage as a crime scene.
And, certainly, worms do not belong on our menu, let alone our dishes.
Maybe it was the suppressed anarchist in the seven-year-old me that found solace in Thomas Rockwell’s novel How To Eat Fried Worms. This revolutionary book awakened something at my very core.
It’s a story of a group of young boys who are constantly searching for creative ways of what essentially amounts to consensual torture. One character, Billy, is dared to eat fifteen worms in fifteen days in exchange for fifty dollars (not adjusted for inflation).
Looking back at that questionable period of my childhood made me ponder over what made Rockwell’s novel so, pun completely intentional, groundbreaking; especially when considering the concept of digging up worms to feed to a friend. Maybe fresh earthworms just hit different in 1973.
People are always saying that nostalgia trips are enjoyable, so what evidence did I have to assume otherwise when it came to this book. My blog partner, Olivia Tonelli, and I decided to seek out the novel and get to the bottom of its critical and financial success.
Ultimately, just as worms don’t belong at the table, we found that there are moments during Billy’s worm-eating marathon that are difficult to digest.
Each of the central characters have compelling arcs and motivations that are appropriate for a children’s book. In fact, the antagonistic Alan (I’m really indulging in that assonance) is complex and conflicted throughout the narrative. Maybe it’s the English Major in me, but he has some definite depth. However, these characters are unfortunately undercut by some confusing and distracting references that seriously blurs the line on the story’s target audience.
There are World War II references galore, children casually calling one another bastards, and even the mention of backseat sex that I find substantially more mortifying than eating a worm.
As an English Major, I should be searching for the highly intellectual and enlightened symbolism of including World War II references across several chapter titles. To name a few:
“Chapter 23: Admirals Nagumo and Kusaka on the Bridge of the Akaiga, December, 1941”
“Chapter 25: Pearl Harbor”
“Chapter 26: Guadalcanal”
and (help, all of the chapters are in Roman numerals and it’s giving me a stroke)
“Chapter 39: The United States Cavalry Rides over the Hilltop”
Each of these titles are meant to liken Alan’s deceitful trick to make Billy lose the fifty-dollar, worm-eating bet, to, wait for it, the bombing of Pearl Harbor. A devastating attack that killed 2,403 people.
Literature sure is fascinating.
Now, onto the bastards.
There are ten instances of the word “bastard” that appears throughout the text in various forms.
We are blessed with the the simple, but direct “bastard” as a verbal attack against a character. Then, we have our beloved protagonist denouncing all of his friends as “bastards” (pages 55, 57, and 66). Although, I believe that the real gift came when Tom, Billy’s ally in the bet, stands in the middle of the street in the dead of night with a megaphone, awakens the neighborhood, and evolves the word into an adjective a la “bastardiness” (page 69). Finally, in spectacular fashion, we get three uses of it in a row on page 72, climaxing in an ultimate, fully-capitalized “BASTARD!”
If your first grader didn’t know of the word yet, that poor little fink sure does now.
Wait. What did I just type?
Yes, dear reader, fink.
A word that you may be unfamiliar with. But do not fret, for no one I have talked to knew of this word, either. To make a long and humorous story short, Rockwell’s infamous novel has, historically, been the target of frequent censors, and even appears on the American Library Association’s list of Most Commonly Challenged Books in the United States from 1990-2000.
So, now, nine out of the ten (why?) forms of “bastard” in the novel have been replaced with the word “fink.” Which, by the way, has seen an interesting spike in usage following the novel’s publication.
I like to believe that we can thank Rockwell for that one.
Earlier in this post, I mentioned that the story even tackles sex. Because what seven-year-old doesn’t love to turn to page 32 of their favorite children’s book to discover that one character’s cousin was recently caught in the backseat of her father’s Chevrolet with an encyclopedia salesman.
Then, after telling that story to his friends, the young boy, for no explicable reason, wipes his mouth. (Hmh.)
At least his cousin has class.
I would like to say that this strange and uncomfortable moment served any sort of purpose to the overall story, but.
For a book that focuses on the biting into, chewing up, and swallowing of worms, the premise somehow managed to not be the strangest part of the story. Instead, Rockwell served his readers a full-course meal of absurd references that I, as a moderately-functioning adult, struggled to stomach.
There are some notable leftovers that are missing from this review, though, including a horrific nightmare-scape that rivals Cats (2019) and an excruciating rap about fish that goes:
“Trout, salmon, flounder, perch,
I’ll ride my minibike into church.
Dace, tuna, haddock, trout,
Wait’ll you hear the minister shout.
Fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish.
Shark, haddock, sucker, eel,
I’ll race my father in his automobile.
Eel, flounder, bluegill, shark,
We’ll race all day till after dark.”
There’s an incomprehensible use of the phrase “TAA-RAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaa” (page 70) and chapter titles that look like this:
Sometimes, when we’re younger, we tend to view the world through a rose-tinted lens. We continue to age, but the things we loved when we were younger cannot be expected to always age with us. As is the case with Rockwell’s How To Eat Fried Worms.
It was great when it was first served to me nearly thirteen years ago, but going back for seconds wasn’t the experience I was hoping for. I’ll always hold this book in high regard for inspiring me with a renegade childhood, but I probably should have just let it stay there. There must be a life lesson in here somewhere.
Now, please excuse me as I look up how to effectively end a blog post on WikiHow.
Oh, My Word! Olivia Tonelli and I found the list of Wormy Recipes in the back of the book and made our own dirt and worms dish!