Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Go Ask Ashley

Ashley Dukart, Nothing More, Nothing Less

Young Brandon’s spirit has become a festering cancer of guilt, which he drowns with drugs. He has progressed from consuming to dealing, a progress that has him walking a knife’s edge with the suburban PD. His brothers fight to pull him back, but he will only get better when he wants to get better—and his time is growing short.

I like the idea of this book. Freshman author Ashley Dukart has a strong premise, turning on the inherent duplicity of suburban life. While his brothers try to steer him back to the confines of caucasian normalcy, Brandon (no last name) rebels against the tedious constraints of suburban life. Sounds like the sitcom Weeds, but with more tears.

But Dukart’s execution suggests she has memorized these components from a textbook. Like Beatrice Sparks, whose Go Ask Alice described acid highs cribbed directly from government pamphlets, Dukart’s descriptions of drug effects on Brandon, his brothers, and their lives, feels entirely familiar. It has the comforting vagueness of 10th-grade health class.

As our first-person narrator, Brandon describes several highs, drug-fueled sexual encounters, and casual fistfights, all of which he uses to conceal the pain growing inside. His life is driven entirely by guilt, which he admits to himself without coming to grips with it. He would rather numb the pain than actually do anything about it.

The word “numb” comes up frequently, as does “happy.” Brandon uses these words to describe the benefits he thinks he gets from drugs, raves, and house parties. His vocabulary never gets any more specific than that. Read interviews with real drug users. Not only do they describe, sometimes in wrenching detail, the temporary benefits of using, they also describe what they use to get away from.

Instead, Dukart caroms through descriptions of highs and lows that repeat the same few details so often, we clearly recognize their memorized nature. Brandon's vague highs are followed by predictable crashes, characterized by repetitive strings of physical symptoms. Dukart seems weirdly fascinated by the fact that hangovers and withdrawals make users vomit.

Brandon pukes so often, so powerfully, and so close together that I find myself losing track of the story to wonder: when does this guy eat? Because vomiting is the only concrete detail Dukart gives us, the mechanics of malfunctioning digestion loom large in readers’ attention. Only around page 150 does another character finally observe that you can’t puke on an empty stomach.

For about fifty pages, Brandon avoids directly addressing the cause of his guilt, though it’s poorly concealed, since it’s in the back-cover synopsis. He blames himself for his mother’s suicide because... well... because her lengthy, well-constructed note told him not to. His guilt becomes circular. He feels he’s still letting her down, which only prompts more self-destructive behavior.

Brandon’s pain, not that unusual for children from divorced or domestically violent homes, seems larger than life to him. On the one hand, he seems to have remarkably little empathy for others’ pain, believing his own more important. This lack of empathy is emphasized when his part-time squeeze gets busted for possession, and he doesn’t even bat an eye.

On the other hand, Brandon’s apathy finds its mirror in his brothers, Ace and Cole (wow, them’s some white names). Ace wants to be paternal, but only knows how to solve problems with his fists. Cole would keep the peace, but doesn’t apparently know what he wants from his own life. He’s a middle child from Central Casting.

Instead of guiding us through a fully fleshed human soul in torment, Dukart recites a thesaurus of cautionary stereotypes. We never feel for Brandon’s struggles outside bog-standard white suburban malaise (Mom’s death feels distant, reported rather than experienced), nor share the pain he wants to numb. He just grabs more drugs, and flushes his life away, because that’s what people in these stories do.

That encapsulates my problem with the whole story. Rather than push deeper into Brandon’s pain, Dukart seems driven by a checklist. Personal trauma that needs narcotized away: check. Meaningless sex that makes him feel cheaper rather than loved: check. Painful jolt that motivates him to change: check. True love as salvation: check.

Again, I like the idea of this book. But rather than describe a real journey, Dukart recites bromides recollected from prior books. She doesn’t need to have experienced drug washout to write about it. Stephen Crane wrote convincingly about the Civil War without serving, but he learned about authentic experiences. Dukart hasn’t gone that far.

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