Friday, October 2, 2009


I watched this video of Walter Dean Myers describing Dope Sick in the hopes that I would understand it a little better. I think it helps. I still have a big question about what happens at the end of the book, but I think to specify my confusion might be giving too much away. Here's what I do understand: Jeremy Dance, known as Lil J, was with his friend Rico when Rico sold drugs to an undercover cop. Rico takes the cop's gun and the two boys walk away. Then Rico, hopped up on his own product, returns to the cop and Lil J hears gunfire. Or at least that's what Lil J tells us. (Some unknown time period) later, Rico is captured and confesses that Lil J was the one who shot the cop -- whose condition is reported as serious. Lil J is on the run, he's been shot and he takes refuge in an abandoned building in Harlem where he happens upon Kelly, seated in a chair watching TV.

Kelly shows Lil J what's on his TV ... and Lil J is shocked to see himself there. In fact, Kelly is using a remote that seems to be able to click from Lil J's present, to his past and even his future. Is Lil J hallucinating, out of his mind with his gunshot wound? Myers isn't telling. Kelly asks Lil J what one thing that he's done that he would like to take back. And Lil J and Kelly spend the rest of this brief novel reviewing his life to find out what that might be. The actions at the end of the story confused me (I listened to it twice), but still I may have missed the moment where Lil J decides what to take back (or whether he does at all). What Myers says in the video is that a life carefully examined can lead to hope, and possibly redemption. And Kelly forces Lil J into a ruthless self-examination.

Recorded Books' go-to narrator for African American characters, JD Jackson, reads this novel (18 months ago, I listened to him read Myers' excellent Sunrise over Fallujah). He's an outstanding narrator, switching from urban black teen speak to drug-addled street person to television newscaster, and -- in this novel -- the (presumably white) wife of an Italian American cop. He sounds authentic in each of those voices. In this novel, he inhabits the panicky, yet smart-ass Lil J perfectly -- keeping you on an edge of uncertainty. As a doper, Lil J has an uneasy relationship with the truth.

His characterization of Kelly is slightly more problematic, but I wonder if he was hampered by the novel itself. In Jackson's hands, Kelly sounds like a wise, all-knowing adult; so I was surprised to hear Myers say that he's just a little bit older than 17-year-old Lil J. Granted, he's a mythic teenager, but the interpretation gives me a little pause.

Still, a quibble. (I appear to have had a bit of a run on quibbles.) As I've said before, there is simply no substitute for a good audiobook when I am reading outside of my own middle-class, college-educated, American white girl oeuvre. A story just gets so many more layers when it's not my voice I'm hearing.

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