Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dope Sick by Walter Dean Myers

Reviewed by Steven Wolk

Recently I was inside a bookstore with my son. We were walking through the children's section, and standing before me was a large display of books, all by Walter Dean Myers. It would be one thing to comment on how prolific a writer Myers is. It seems he always has a new book out. Does the man ever sleep? But it is another thing entirely when you examine the scope of his writing. Fiction, non-fiction, picture books, poetry. His non-fiction ranges from Antarctica to Jazz, from Muhammad Ali to Malcolm X. The scope of his fiction is breathtaking: from basketball (Game, Hoops, Slam!), to race and crime (Monster, Shooter, The Scorpions, Autobiography of My Dead Brother); from war stories (Fallen Angels, Sunrise Over Fallujah), to short stories (145th Street, What They Found: Love on 145th Street); from historical fiction (The Glory Field, The Journal of Scott Pendleton Collins), to Shakespearean novels written in verse (Street Love).

Are there genres Myers has not tackled? Yes. Fantasy, science fiction, dystopia. But now there is Dope Sick, a book that subtly moves Myers into the fantastical elements of fiction. He uses magical realism to tell the story of Jeremy "Lil J" Dance, a seventeen year-old heroin addict in denial – about his life, his loves, his drug use. This is a short, provocative novel that should get readers thinking. Magical realism brings fantasy elements to otherwise realistic books. Another terrific young adult novel with magical realism is Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan, about a gay high school boy whose town and high school celebrates homosexuality rather than condemns it.

Lil J is shot in the arm and on the run. After involvement in a drug deal gone bad that results in his friend shooting a police officer, Lil J is in a panic. Trying to get away he runs into an abandoned building. On his way to the roof, he comes across Kelly, a mysterious man sitting before a television. From this point forward, most of the book is a conversation between Lil J and Kelly, with occasional flashbacks to Lil J's life.

The magical realism involves Kelly's TV. That set (and his remote control), have the power to show scenes from Lil J's life, including – if set to fast forward – his horrifying future up on that roof if he chooses to go that route. Through watching scenes of his life and his back-and-forth with Kelly, Lil J gets some time to reconsider some of the decisions he’s made. This is often a painful, difficult, and courageous thing for anyone to do, let alone a young adult hooked on heroin with a gun in his pocket and a shot cop in the hospital. You don't have to be involved with drugs or crime to place yourself in Lil J's shoes. About halfway through the book a question popped into my head: If I could watch myself on TV and see some of things I've done and said before I did them, would I not do them? The answer is obvious. Absolutely. That's a rather chilling thought.

The ending of Dope Sick will be debated. I was intrigued as I zipped through the book about how Myers would finish his story. Once you bring magical realism into a book, even realistic fiction, anything becomes possible. So Myers had virtually limitless ways to end Lil J's story. I’d say that right now – with finishing the book still somewhat fresh in my mind – that I was unhappy with his ending. Something about it felt too easy. But Dope Sick is a quick, fascinating, and thought-provoking read that can encourage us to question the decisions we make and the actions we take each day as we work our way through our lives. Lil J may be on the run from the police and in denial about dope, but we can all benefit from Kelly's magical TV.


a. fortis said...

I saw Walter Dean Myers speak at a writers' conference, and he has a very specific, organized, and might I say, OCD method of plotting and writing his novels--and what can I say? It really seems to work. :D

Colleen said...

The man is a genius. He needs to win one of those MacArthur grants (if he hasn't already).

Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

I really admire his work.
Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of HOPE..
Ch. 1 is online!

Ms. Yingling said...

Can't keep this one on my shelf. Should have bought two copies.