Saturday, September 10, 2011

Young Adult: What is Real by Karen Rivers

Dex Pratt’s parents have divorced and his mother has moved on. His father? Not so much. The former pot farm defending attorney is now himself a pot-growing pothead, wheelchair bound after a suicide attempt went bad. Dex moves back to care for him, and ends up caving under the pressure of his world and smoking to the point where reality and fantasy separate in alarming ways.

What is Real
(Orca Books) is not just the title of Karen Rivers’ 14th novel, it’s also the subtext. Midway through the book, we see Dex sprawl:
Maybe now I should be the bad guy. Take this drug thing and run with it. Expand.

Why not?

I’ve already been everything else.

The brain, the jock, the musician, the filmmaker, the athlete, the nurse, the horticulturalist.

I roll over, face down in the dirt. I can feel it in my nose, Chemicals, rocks, bugs, dirt. I think about earthworms, their long elastic bodies stretching taut, their blind eyes reaching for the darkness.
Dex’s voice is sharp, laconic, edgy fresh. On this journey with him -- and through his eyes -- we experience his loss of footing, feel his helplessness, mourn when he loses his way.

While reading, it’s important to remember that, through most of What is Real, the narrator is stoned and his observations reflect that. “Do people still write poems?" Dex asks at one point. “What a bullshitty thing to do.” And when he tells us about seeing aliens, we know just what has inspired the sightings. We see him stumble, fall and -- ultimately -- begin to find his way. What is Real ends on a hopeful note, or we think it does: Rivers has skillfully left us wondering exactly what is real. ◊

Monica Stark is a contributing editor to January Magazine. She currently makes her home on a liveaboard boat somewhere in the North Pacific.

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