Sunday, July 8, 2007

Looking for Alaska

Green, John. (2005). Looking For Alaska. New York: Penguin. ISBN 0525475060.

Miles leaves his Florida home with his parents for a boarding school in Alabama where his father went as a youth (and did his share of trouble making) in search of his chance at finding “The Great Perhaps.”

What he found was his roommate Chip—a.k.a the Colonel—and Alaska, “the hottest girl in school.” Both were weekenders (compared to the Weekday Warriors, rich kids who lived a the school during the week but went home to their country club lives on the weekends) and both were screwed up in their own ways. Especially Alaska, with her seemingly multiple personalities disorder.

It’s from Chip, Alaska and a few peripheral characters that Miles learns to smoke, drink, eat bufriedos (deep fried burritos, “proving that deep-frying always improves food”), pull great pranks and get ever closer to “The Great Perhaps” he was seeking when he arrived at Culver Creek. And because of his skinniness, they give him the nickname Pudge.

The only problem is, he’s in love with Alaska. Oh, sure, she appreciates him in her own way—upon meeting him, instead of shaking hands, she pulled down his shorts; when he got kicked out of class for staring out the window, in a show of solidarity, she walked out with him; and then later, she tells him he’s “adorable… Too bad I love my boyfriend.” Despite (or perhaps because of) her mixed messages—entirely in tune with the rest of her bi-polar behavior, the way she seems happy and excited one minute and blubberingly, angrily, dramatically crying the next—Miles is utterly fascinated with her. He is tormented by her relationship with her boyfriend with whom she seems to have long, tearful phone calls in the hallway and then ecstatic make-ups.

Alaska seems oblivious to Pudge’s feelings. She “finds” him a girlfriend—a Romanian student named Lara. And she parades her boyfriend, Jake, in front of him during a weekend visit, even telling Miles that Jake is “hung like a horse and a beautiful, sensual lover.” Miles knows he should hate Jake, but he’s too busy admiring, wanting “to be him” to hate him.

Instead, he throws himself into his new budding relationship with Lara, his homework and appreciating his new life, full of friends and activity. He even has his first experience with felatio—a sad attempt that had to be re-explained and demonstrated to both Miles and Lara on a tube of Crest Complete, after which Miles has a better SECOND experience.

When a late night drinking binge ends up with Miles and Alaska making out on the floor, the Colonel slurs, “This is going to end poorly.” They all pass out but are awakened again by Alaska slamming the door and begging them, half screaming, to distract The Eagle (Mr. Stiles, the principal) while she drives away because she has “to get out of here.” Instead of keeping her from driving drunk, they grab a handful of firecrackers and head out to create a diversion.

The next day the Eagle assembled all the students to the gymnasium to let them know that Alaska Young had died early that morning in a car accident.

Pudge and the Colonel spend the rest of the book trying to figure out whether or not Alaska’s death was truly an accident (Alaska speeding on a wet road on the way to put flowers on her mother’s grave) or whether she killed herself AND dealing with the fact that they both had a hand in her driving drunk (and if that had anything to do with the incident).

After one last elaborate prank in Alaska’s memory, the guys throw themselves into their studies and learn to let go of their lovely, lively and very messed up friend. But Miles was guaranteed not to forget her:

It was the central moment of Alaska’s life. When she cried and told me that she fucked everything up, I knew what she meant now. And when she said she failed everyone, I knew whom she meant now. It was the everything and the everyone of her life, and so I could not help but imagine it: I imagined a scrawny eight-year-old with dirty fingers, looking down at her mother, who I imagine was not breathing by then but wasn’t yet cold either. And in the time between dying and death, a little Alaska sat with her mother in silence. And then through the silence and my drunkenness, I caught a glimpse of her as she might have been. She must have come to feel so powerless, I thought, that the one thing she might have done—pick up the phone and call an ambulance—never even occurred to her. There comes a time when we realize that our parents cannot save themselves or save us, that everyone who wades through time eventually gets dragged out to sea by the undertow—that, in short, we are all going.

So she became impulsive, scared by her inaction into perpetual action…

First of all, there is nearly no organization to the plotline of this story. It flip-flops around and meanders from one random situation to another, like Christmas lights loosely strung together on a feeble thread. Further, the characters are flakey and unpredictable, their personalities shifting and changing constantly. The setting is a sleepy boarding school where the kids are so bored, they spend their time plotting and implementing elaborate, yet juvenile pranks. The account is peppered with curse words and seemingly random utterances that only show the flightiness of the characters personalities.

In other words, Looking for Alaska is an INCREDIBLE young adult book. Everything I said in the first paragraph of my reaction was a compliment. Adolescence is for many/most a time of flux where young people discover they can not depend on their previous perceptions of reality. The plot is disorganized, making it that much more realistic. A guy goes off to school, looking to break the monotony of living at home, and he finds just that.

The characters are flakey, flighty and unpredictable—and all people we’d love to have as friends. They are the outliers—the kids who don’t really fit in to any one group, pushing against the hegemony of the Weekday Warriors and the Eagle with their constant pranks and non-violent, subtle and sometimes silent protests. They are real and believable and likable.

The language is accessible but is not simple in the way that the reader (especially young readers) feel condescended to. Miles’ thoughts are ones we all have in those moments of self-discovery and world-questioning, so even his musing which can at times wax super-philosophical, is still understandable and applicable to the adolescent plight. The curse words were not in the least frivolous or gratuitous but rather skillfully used to heighten the emotion. Sometimes (especially when you’re discovering just how much power certain words can hold) the word “fuck” just can not be substituted. It only makes the story more real and rich.

Personally, I feel a great attachment to this story because I see so much of myself in the character Alaska. I spent most of my adolescence in a similar pattern of self-destruction and bi-polar tendencies. While my mother did not die, I had other demons with which I had to deal—for one, I was sexually abused most of my childhood by a stream of men I had come to trust—so, my behavior later as a teen was indicative of my searching to solidify the meaning of those early experiences. I had long struggled with the question of “Why didn’t you stop them?” And so, like Alaska I “became impulsive, scared by her inaction into perpetual action…” and became self-destructive and promiscuous. And like Alaska, I had several brushes with death—some of them self-inflicted.

Luckily, I survived. I’m in awe that a fictionalized story like Looking for Alaska could capture so much realistic emotion and behavior. Hopefully, it will touch young lives and give them an opportunity to share those experiences vicariously rather than having to live them out. And for those of whom it is too late, they’ll feel that they are not so alone after all.

Reviews for Looking for Alaska (per

From School Library Journal
Grade 9 Up—From the very first page, tension fills John Green's Michael L. Printz Award-winning novel (Dutton, 2005). ...This novel is about real kids dealing with the pressures of growing up and feeling indestructible. Listeners will be riveted as the friends band together to deal with the catastrophic events that plague their junior year, and rejoice at their triumphs. Jeff Woodman clearly delineates the voices for each character in an age-appropriate, smart-alecky manner, injecting great emotion while managing not to be overly sentimental. This story belongs in all collections for older young adults, especially those who like Chris Crutcher, David Klass, and Terry Trueman.

Publishers Weekly
Readers will only hope that this is not the last word from this promising new author.

Michael L. Printz Award
ALA Best Book for Young Adults
ALA Quick Pick
School Library Journal Best Book of the Year

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