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by Melvin Burgess
Avon Books, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jun 6th 2003
Smack tells the story of two
teens who run away from their homes and become addicted to heroin. It is set in Britain in the mid-1980s, and
both the language and context are very much connected to that setting. David, known to his friends as
"Tar," has alcoholic parents, and his father is physically
abusive. The novel starts when David is
14, and he can no longer bear to live at home where both his mother and father
cause him to be miserable in their different ways. He runs away to Bristol, and starts out living on the streets,
but is soon befriended by a older group of anarchists who "squat" un
unused housing. His girlfriend is
Gemma, whose home situation is much less difficult -- her only real complaint
is that her parents are conservative and strict, and she find it impossible to
talk to them. Nevertheless, she also
runs away to be with Tar. While Tar is
shy and polite, Gemma is wilder and more interested in having fun, and it seems
that it is her influence on Tar that leads them both to try new drugs and spend
their time partying.
As the two of them become more
involved in an alternative life, they commit more crimes. Both of them steal from shops, and after a
couple of years, Gemma starts working in a massage parlor as a prostitute. All their friends are in similar situations,
and they all are addicted to heroin.
Their youthful enthusiasm and idealism disappears and they gradually
admit even to themselves that they are simply junkies. Two of the group die from overdoses, but
this does not deter them at all. When
one friend becomes pregnant, they make an attempt to quit, but it is less than
one day before they are shooting up again.
It is only by the end of the novel, when the characters are at the very end
of their teenage years, that they are effectively forced into treatment
programs that help.
Each chapter is narrated by one of
the characters, and the switch in perspective keeps the story interesting, and
helps to balance the grimness of the plot.
This writing device also gives readers a better sense of each
character's perspective, and helps to explain how they can make such bad
decisions and deceive themselves so successfully. Some American readers may find the English colloquial language
hard to understand occasionally, there is a glossary that should explain most
of the unfamiliar words. The author,
Melvin Burgess, writes in a note at the start of the book that it is partly
based on people he personally knew and there are enough gritty details to make
the plot seem true-to-life. It is aimed
at teen readers, although it could also be read by adults.
While Burgess is non-judgmental in
his tone, the story is effectively a morality tale about the dangers of
drugs. The most interesting aspect of the
book is its insight into how people are drawn into such self-destructive
choices. For most of his life, Tar was
angry with his father for his abusive actions and he felt sorry for his mother. However, as Tar starts to understand his
family better, the reader gets to see what led his father to act as he did, and
how in some ways Tar is similar to his father.
Smack has a narrative and psychological complexity that makes it
unusual as a young adult novel, and so I recommend it.
© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is
Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor
of Metapsychology Online Review.
His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and