May 2005

Beth Dugan

fiction

Looking for Alaska by John Green

John Green’s debut novel Looking for Alaska has been labeled as “young adult” fiction. This is surprising because the book is so very engaging, mature, and complex. The apparent difference between young adult fiction and regular adult fiction seems to be in subject matter. Looking for Alaska is about Florida high-school student Miles Halter and his foray into what he calls "the great perhaps," a reference to Francois Rabelais’s dying words (dying words being the one thing Miles is interested in). Miles leaves his bland middle-class high school and journeys to Culver Creek, an elite boarding school in Alabama. Before Culver Creek, Miles’s life was boring. No real pain or pleasure seeped into his days; no friends or enemies or challenges of any kind. Culver Creek throws him into a different world, one with all that he lacked before. His first real friend is Chip, his brilliant white-trash roommate also known as “the Colonel.” Chip heads up the gang of kids that Miles falls in with, the most stunning and hypnotic of these is the gorgeous, sharp, troubled, sweet Alaska Young.

Miles and his friends plan elaborate pranks against the “weekend warriors” (the rich kids who commute home every weekend) and the headmaster, eat junk food, smoke cigarettes, struggle to pass pre-calc, and maintain a steady level of drunkenness on strawberry wine and a concoction of milk and vodka dubbed "ambrosia." The pranks are hilarious and engaging. While running through campus setting off fireworks to distract the headmaster, Takumi, one of Miles’d friends insists on wearing a plushy fox hat, “Because no one can catch the motherfucking fox.” The school also has the worst basketball team in the world and their tongue-in-cheek cheers are witticisms like, “Cornbread! Chicken! Rice! Peas! We got higher ACTs!”, and “Hip Hip Hip Hooray! You’ll be working for us someday!”

It sounds very par for the course for a book about smart kids at a boarding school, but there is a hanging air of menace about the story, which could easily be compared to the tension in the seminal young adult classic, A Separate Peace. All of the chapters are a countdown to something. The first three-fourths of the book contains labels like “forty-seven days before” or “One hundred and one days before.” Considering Miles’s obsession with the beautiful, enigmatic Alaska Young, it is easy to figure out what the last quarter of the book will be about.

Perhaps it’s hard to see this book as young adult fiction because it reads like Miles is looking back on it years later. It is written in first person past tense and the voice of Miles is so mature, so self-aware that it is hard to believe a sixteen year-old telling the tale of his own coming of age with such effortless aplomb. Miles is constantly counting layers of clothing between him and sex, “By happy coincidence, a cute sophomore named Lara ended up sitting on my lap… Since we were only four layers of clothes from doing it, I took the opportunity to introduce myself.” This is an amusing peek into the sex addled mind of a sixteen-year-old boy, but it is just a peek.

Green spends more time on Miles’s inner spiritual life using his world religions class as a foil for what is happening to him. Miles’s monologues can be dense and philosophical and, again, feel too sophisticated for a boy who counts layers of clothing and drinks milk and vodka. His narrative is jumping with self-deprecating humor and teenage struggle to be truthful and to still maintain the façade of coolness that they project. It’s a book about the big things that happen to us: love, loss, grief, forgiveness. Green handles the slippery subject matter with grace and humor and this book transcends its genre of young adult fiction to be a fine book that anyone will enjoy.

Looking for Alaska by John Green
Dutton Juvenile
ISBN: 0525475060
160 Pages