Sunday, August 19, 2012

Problem #2: Drugs, Ugly Drugs

Continuing my posts featuring problem novels, we come to the heavy subject of addiction. A popular subject, always, many modern drug addiction novels tackle the growing problem of meth.  Edward Bloor's A PlagueYear, tells the story of how one small town wages war against the sudden influx of meth labs and how a group of devoted teenagers try to help the "zombies" who suddenly start inhabiting the town.

Main character, Tom, is your average teenage guy, a "townie" who is looked down upon by the college kids who go to the nearby university.  His whole family works for the Food Giant, and each of his family members has had their own problems with addiction--alcohol, marijuana, and even prescription drugs.  The book begins with a robbery at the Food Giant, and it's a pretty exciting opening.  In the early days of the novel, shoplifting and other crimes are rare, but as the book proceeds, the Food Giant fights what appears to be a losing battle against the meth zombies who are robbing it blind.  From the high-adrenaline start, the action takes a little bit of a dive as the author sets the scene, introduces us to life in a small, mostly defunct mining town, and shows us that for most of the residents of Blackwater, Pennsylvania the future doesn't hold much but a lifetime of working at an unsatisfying job.  Tom's different.  Throughout the book he keeps his PSAT practice book in hand (and he teaches the reader vocabulary throughout the novel, which is actually rather irritating.) Tom plans to leave Blackwater, go to college, and make something of himself.  We get a lot of scenes of Tom sitting in his various high school classes, and it's in his English class that the teacher, Mr. Proctor, introduces the students to the concept of a "plague year."  Mr. Proctor makes the comparison between villages decimated by the Black Death and the new plague of methamphetamine.  At the same time the wife of a snooty university professor offers group counseling to the high school students, and they begin to gather each afternoon to discuss the effects of addiction and the impact on families.  The book is set in 2001, and the attacks on the Twin Towers have just occurred.  In one part the counseling group goes on a field trip to the site of the United 93 crash.  The counselor's daughter, Wendy Lyle, is the bright, new, pretty student who shows an interest in Tom.  But as the book progresses, the town and gown difference between them becomes more and more problematic.  And as the meth plague worsens, Tom begins to see that the counselor's involvement in his town's plague is little more than lip service.  No university professor's wife and snooty daughter are going to save his town--it's up to Tom and his friends to make a difference and win the war against meth.

Large parts of this novel are irritatingly pedantic--Bloor doesn't seem to trust the reader to understand a lot of  things and is always having characters explain in a rather stilted, unnatural way.  So many of the scenes take place in school that there is an overabundance of little lessons the teachers or other students share with one another, really sharing with the reader.  It got so bad that for a long time I put the book down and focused on other novels that didn't treat the reader like an idiot.  But luckily I went back to the book.  The characters had drawn me in, especially Tom's cousin, Arthur, who isn't as naturally intelligent as Tom, who doesn't have nearly the choices for his future that Tom has.  But he does have heart, and he is torn between his hatred of drugs and his love for his family, several of whom have a shaky history with addiction.  The Wendy Lyle character also interested me.  She starts out as a likable character (though she is given tons of the pedantic lessons to share) but turns out to be deeply flawed.  The tension between the townie kids and the university kids is well done, and if you're not rooting for the townies by the end of the book, then you missed out.

Despite its flaws, I liked this novel.  I was also surprised by the pedantic parts because I've read several of Bloor's novels and don't remember them having this same issue.  The reader needs to hang in there because the story is worth it, the slow, spreading plague of meth is disturbing to watch, and the heart of the small town is admirable.  And if you leave the novel wanting to know more about the plague of meth in small town America, or perhaps write a research paper on the subject, try the book, Methland, which you can find in the adult nonfiction section at our library.

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