Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Review - Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King

Short review: Growing up when you don't know what you want other than to not make the mistakes of your parents is tough. For some kids, it is fatal.

Sometimes two good friends
Don't know each other at all
And then Charlie dies

Full review: There some young adult books that seem to be based upon the premise that to make juvenile fiction one must dumb down the narrative. Please Ignore Vera Dietz is not one of those books. There are some young adult books that feature kids with minor problems that they agonize over ad nauseum until the reader just wants them to grow up and stop whining. Please Ignore Vera Dietz is not one of those books. There are some young adult books that gloss over the fact that teenagers are nascent adults struggling to deal with adult problems and temptations like drugs, alcohol, and sex. Please Ignore Vera Dietz is not one of those books. There are some young adult books that deal head on with the beautiful potential and terrible tragedy of kids learning to grow up in a world that is laced with things that are wrong, scary, or simply unfair. This is the sort of book that Please Ignore Vera Dietz is.

Although the primary character in the book is, naturally enough, Vera Dietz, her story is interwoven with the story of Vera's best friend Charlie Kahn, his nasty girlfriend Jenny Flick, her own mother "Sindy", her father Ken, and even her coworkers at Pagoda Pizza. All of the myriad ways that a teenager can screw up their life are explored along with all the crap that adults seemingly unknowingly heap upon their children that serve to make the difficult journey from child to adult even more of a struggle. Fundamentally, everyone in the book is defined by the foolish and unwise choices they made as teenagers, and Vera is confronted with a collection of choices with the only real guiding element being that she is certain what she does not want to be. Vera does not want to be one of the detention-heads whose lives are going nowhere. Vera does not want to be Charlie Kahn's mother, trapped in an abusive relationship. Vera does not want to be her own mother, who married too young, worked as a stripper, and abandoned her child without a look back. Vera does not want to be her own emotionally parsimonious father. Vera does not want to be a stoner who works at a pizza delivery place. Vera does not want to be a community college dropout. But for all that she knows she does not want to be, Vera is still unclear about what she does want to be.

A lesser author might take these elements and make an ABC After School Special out of it where life lessons are learned and Vera and Charlie end up walking away hand in hand to a bright future. But life is messier than that. Some kids simply don't navigate the way to adulthood successfully, especially when their lives are piled high with shit heaped on by those around them. The tragedy of the story is that Charlie and Vera face much the same choices through their lives, and Charlie's choices lead him down a dark path that irretrievably fractures his friendship with Vera and eventually results in his death, which merely adds to the load Vera must carry as she tries to find her own way through the maze of superficially enticing dead ends to the one that will lead to a better life. And the brilliance of the book is that while it does not sugarcoat the vast array of pitfalls a teenager faces, it also presents them in a way that makes their appeal apparent to the reader. When Vera takes up drinking to deaden her pain, one understands why, and sympathizes. When she dates a man who is completely wrong for her, one understands the attraction. When Charlie makes the many choices that lead him to his own destruction, one can follow him step by step, knowing that each choice is the wrong one to make, but also knowing that each choice has a level of attraction that makes Charlie's decisions understandable.

And the struggle to make the smart choices is simply overwhelming. Following Vera as she works to keep her grades up and work a full-time job (at her father's insistence) as she loses her best friend to the creeping malaise of apathy and anger, one can feel sympathy even for Jenny Flick and the detention-heads. It would clearly be just so much easier for her to just to do nothing and just let life hand her whatever she gets. Even Vera's father, who refused to stay an uneducated alcoholic and changed his own life for the better, is unwilling to take action when it comes to the violence next door, or even take responsibility for caring for an abandoned animal. And when he does take action, he massively overreacts, or clumsily puts fuel on the fire, as when he arranges for Vera to talk to her absentee mother after a silence of six long years. To a certain extent, the Pagoda, a massive eyesore that dominates the little Pennsylvania town where the story is set, serves as a metaphor for the attitude most of the characters in the book display - they don't like it, but they aren't going to do anything about it. And as the reader watches on, Vera, grieving over the death of her ex-best friend, drunkenly stumbles her way towards that trap herself, paralyzed into inactivity by the thought that if she took action it would have consequences.

But the memory of Charlie won't let Vera simply fall by the wayside. Though, from a certain standpoint, solving the mystery of Charlie's death is of limited consequence to the story, the mere action of taking steps to do so is critical for Vera as a character. The story is told in a nonlinear format, interspersing current events with Vera's memories, Charlie's commentary, Ken Dietz's explanations, and even the musings of the ever-present Pagoda, a format that serves to enhance the story. Through the book Vera is chased by the memory of her dead ex-friend, which she tries desperately to escape, to pretend that nothing can or should be done about his death or the crime he is unjustly blamed for. And because of this, Vera drifts aimlessly, spiraling further and further out of control until she reaches the point of crisis, and must either pull back from the edge, or fall off and follow all of the other human flotsam apathetically floating towards whatever dead end fate they might reach. In the end, Vera must not only save the memory of Charlie, she must save her father, and ultimately, herself.

To pay homage to the book, here is me using the word "brilliant" in a sentence: Please Ignore Vera Dietz is, quite simply, a brilliant book. Casting an unflinching eye upon that wonderful and tragic moment in a person's life in which they are balanced between fantastic unrealized possibilities and the awful potential for utter failure, the book presents the very real struggles of children yearning to become the adults they want to be. Though the book is filled with humor, it never makes light of Vera or any of the other characters, with the humor serving to highlight the tragic elements of the story. Topping off an emotionally intense and compelling story is the fact that A.S. King's writing flows so flawlessly that the pages fly by. To be blunt, everyone who is a teenager, has a teenager, or has been a teenager, should go out right now and read this book.

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