Monday, March 23, 2009

Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos

Jack Gantos always wanted to be a writer, and these days, he is the well-known author of numerous children’s books, including the Rotten Ralph series and Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. But his path from aspiring writer to writer was a circuitous one. Hole in My Life is one Gantos’ books for teens, a memoir covering a few years of his life, his late teens through early twenties, when he often got drunk and did drugs, agreed to help two drug smugglers move a couple of tons of hashish, got caught, and ended up in jail.

In a word, Hole in My Life is riveting. Gantos writes matter-of-factly about the mistakes he made, not afraid to show himself in a poor light. During his junior year of high school, his father moved the family to Puerto Rico, where Jack ended up working as an electrician because he couldn't attend the Spanish-speaking public schools and his family couldn't afford to send him to an English-speaking private school. But he was a poor electrician. Deciding he wanted to get his diploma, Jack returned to Florida, without his parents, to finish high school.

At first he stayed with a family who needed the boarding money Jack's father paid, but after missing the toilet one too many times in his alcohol-induced puke-athons, Jack takes a room at an old motel. While his living situation did not, unfortunately, increase his appeal with girls ("maybe it was my whiny Holden Caulfield imitation of a boy in need of carnal therapy that got me nowhere. Or perhaps my sitting in the library with an intensely cheerless, poetic look on my face only scared girls away"), it was while he was living at King's Court that he is invited to the apartment of a friend of a friend, where there would be a weed party.

I had read lots of books where people smoked weed. Some seemed to really enjoy it and got happy and hungry and silly and had deep insights into themselves and the world. I had a sneaky suspicion I was going to be the other kind of smoker—the kind I had also read about who go off the deep end and let life drift way out of control, and become dependent on dope and other users to help them out, and are abused and broken down and the only deep insight they gain from the experience is that they have totally ruined their lives—and I'd end up like that girl from Go Ask Alice who went nuts on LSD and was locked in a closet after she imagined a million bugs were on her skin and to kill them she clawed off all her flesh and nearly bled to death.

By the time I finished restocking the entire canned vegetable section at work, I was convinced I would be a vegetable if I smoked. Yet I went to the apartment.
As weed parties go, it was a disappointment, even to his hosts. But it didn't dissuade him from trying marijuana again. A year later Jack, having decided college, or at least the University of Florida, wasn't for him, reunited with his family in St. Croix, where drug use was rampant. It is in St. Croix that Jack will meet the smugglers who ask if he wants to join them and the lure of $10,000 proves too much to resist. And it is a testament to to Gantos' skill as a writer that even though you know he'll take part in the smuggling before ultimately finding his focus as a writer in federal prison, you're still turning the pages rapidly, holding your breath and unable to put Hole in My Life down until you finish the very last page.

[cross-posted at The YA YA YAs]

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