My long-time LiveJournal friend friend Yves (squid_ink, I think... she hasn't posted on lj in a long time) recently asked everyone on facebook what their favorite pre-high school book was. Got me thinking about the earliest books I could remember reading. I think the earliest novel I read that was not a children's book was this young adult paperback. I think I was around 12. Through the magic of the internet, I was easily able to find it on eBay, and within a few days it arrived in my mailbox. Total cost: seven bucks.
Before I read it, I made some notes to see what I remembered. (It's amazing I remember anything, given this was over 40 years ago.)
What I remember... A kid's older brother becomes sullen and withdrawn. He's cynical and morose and only cares about scoring drugs. The kid brother tries to connect with him but it's no use. The older brother says when Kennedy got killed it was all over for the dream of a better America. The younger one says maybe there'll be another guy like that but the burned out older brother says, "There won't be another one." The younger brother reminisces about a gangster movie they watched together. A guy is locked in a trunk and says, "Air! I need some air!" " You want some air? I'll give you some air," Cagney says and fires into the trunk.That was so great! Wasn't that great? Yeah, sure, whatever. The older brother's voice is flat, his eyes dead. I don't remember how it ends, what happens to the older brother.
So now I've reread it. What I recalled was pretty accurate. As I was reading, every now and then, I would know how things were going to turn out because the text had jogged my memory. It's not that it's a momentous novel, but surely being one of the first that I read must have made it have a strong impression on me.
The cover and the back-page blurbs would have you believe that this is a lurid anti-drug cautionary tale, sort of a Reefer Madness type thing. It's really not. The older brother's bad trip is central to the story, but it's not wildly unrealistic. Most of the anti-drug talk comes from the sheltered younger brother, parroting stuff he heard in school. Drug users are mostly portrayed with compassion, though not flatteringly. I get the feeling the author really wanted to write about adolescence and family dynamics, but of course things have to be marketed, so the drug angle probably helped sell it to a publisher.
The best parts of the book are not about the relationship between the two brothers, or the older brother's drug problem/mental health crisis. They're when the younger brother strikes out on his own, like wandering around Greenwich Village in the summer of 1967, where he talks to a stoned hippy girl at the Digger's Free Store. And when he hitchhikes to the asylum to see his brother, he gets a ride from a traveling shoe salesman, a guy in his sixties selling old fashioned shoes from a catalog. The kid feels really bad for him. It was these peripheral encounters I enjoyed the most. They made me remember what it was like when I was 16, and for the first time I was wandering around strange places by myself, talking to people from different walks of life, how startling and new it was. I think that alarming hyper-reality of adolescence, everything rushing in at once, is where most young adult novels get their power.
So no, this is not one for the ages. Its interest lies mostly in depicting a particular place and time, when the hippy subculture was beginning to fray and also lap up against the edges of the middle class. I'd like to see what Ms. Wojciechowska wrote when she was free to follow her imagination wherever it took her, rather than hewing to a mass market publisher's pitch. Still, I'm grateful to her for this book, which introduced me to the pleasures of novel reading. It has its moments.