I am Fartacus, by Mark Maciejewski, is a jocks-vs-nerds story set in middle school, featuring the enmity between top jock, Archer Norris, and misfit nerd, Maciek Trzebiatowski, aka ‘Chub.’
Archer is the golden boy who rules the school. He used to be best friends with Chub, until an accident with nit-shampoo meant that Chub lost his hair. Archer, unable to cope with guilt and shame, fled the scene and the friendship turned toxic. While Archer became athletic and popular, Chub became an increasingly alienated outsider, lurking in stairwells and seeking vengeance on his former friend, whom he names ‘the Arch,’ short for ‘the arch-nemesis.’
I am Fartacus is narrated by Chub, who seems to relish his role as an angry outsider, plotting mischief and trying to bring down the Arch, whose popularity galls him greatly. With his new best friend, Levi (‘Moby’) Dick, who eats a lot of lentils and chickpeas, and is always dashing for the loo, Chub uncovers why Arch has so much power in the school. He unmasks Arch and their headmaster as secret gambling addicts, who are out of their depths in a local poker tournament. Empathy wins the day, and when Moby turns out to be a whiz at poker, the friends earn enough money from the tournament themselves, and generously give it away to get their former enemies out of trouble.
I am Fartacus is kids’ comedy of the exploding toilet variety. There are a great many jokes about flatulence and underpants. Chub seems to revel in revoltingness of a kind that we normally draw a veil over at Antipodean Odyssey. I read the whole novel, though, and enjoyed its multiple plots and humorous energy, and as I did, I reflected on the jocks-vs-nerd format that seems to drive so many American children’s books and films–the endless tussle and perplexity about what makes some people popular, and about where true power and agency lie.
Which is one way of thinking about the power structures at a junior high school: Chub leading a group of misfits to revolt against the popular kids who rule the roost. But Chub comes to understand that no one at school has as much power as they might seem to, and the novel ends with his friendship with Arch restored, and the idea of misfits vs jocks overturned.
That exploration of power connects to the novel’s title, which alludes to the film, Spartacus (1960), directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas. Chub’s cousin, Jarek, who runs the local retro cinema, has screened this film, and though Chub refers to it only once, the novel’s title implies he views his struggle against Arch in similar terms to Spartacus’s leading of the slaves’ revolt.
Ever since I convinced [Moby] to watch Spartacus last summer, he gets suspicious when he doesn’t know what the new movie is.
‘Don’t worry, new release.’
He turns to me, his eyes burning the side of my face. ‘I hope so. Spartacus didn’t make any sense.’
I’m tired of trying to explain the famous scene where all the slaves claim to be Spartacus so the Romans can’t tell which one really is.
Moby won’t let it go. ‘I mean, seriously, how can they all be Spartacus? That’s a pretty big mess-up if you ask me.’
‘Mmmm–himmm,’ I say, hoping he’ll drop it.
He doesn’t. ‘And if there’s more than one, shouldn’t the move be called Sparta-CI?’ He taps his temple. ‘Think about it.’I am Fartacus, 8-9
Apart from this moment of exposition early on, I am Fartacus refers only slightly to Spartacus. The final chapter, in which Chub and his new ‘cadre’ of friends all take the blame for an epic fart that Moby has let out in class, connects with the famous ‘I am Spartacus’ moment. By that time, Chub and Archer have reconciled, and Chub has realised that that empathy, friendship and kindness are more powerful than vengeance.
In the film, of course, all the slaves who claim to be Spartacus are crucified, along with Spartacus himself: it is a story about powerful sacrifices for the cause of freedom. And while taking the blame for a friend’s fart is admirable, and a sign that Chub has learned the value of solidarity, I am Fartacus seems to draw more inspiration from the various memes of the phrase that appear on t-shirts and gifs and bumper stickers (all searchable online if you wish)….
I couldn’t quite work out if the novel was parodying the junior-high school novel genre’s obsession with power structures, or simply enjoying playing around with stories about enmity and friendship. And I’m not enough of a Spartacus expert to recognise if the story draws strongly on the film’s plot structure. Not that it necessarily has to! Not everyone has to be obsessed with classical references in children’s literature. Not every children’s book has to be faithful to its referent text. What I am Fartacus delivers is some thoughtful reflection on the pressures of life, and the redeeming power of friendship–and a lot of fun.