In Ritchey’s (The Never Prayer, 2012) powerful YA novel, a teenage boy flirts with death as he struggles to find meaning in life.
Jim Dillenger—JD to his friends—lives an unremarkable upper-middle-class life in suburban Denver. He’s a gifted student, but he spends most of his time getting high with his apathetic group of friends. His parents’ crumbling marriage and the recent death of his grandfather have left him bitter and ready to end it all. He’s not great at keeping his suicidal aspirations a secret, and soon, the entire high school is betting on whether or not he’ll kill himself. It’s a powerful take on an all-too-relatable subject for teenage readers. JD is a typical snarky adolescent—he describes the school counselor as “spelunking down into middle-age”—and he’s unsatisfied by what he perceives as his mundane existence. He floats through life, lacking real connection to the people around him, until he finally meets an unlikely group of friends who try and pull him out of his malaise. This ragtag bunch includes an octogenarian neighbor with keen insight, a drug-dealing dropout with higher aspirations, and a pair of Christian girls whose beliefs are, at first, highly offensive to the staunchly agnostic Jim. These richly drawn, beautifully complex characters, and the relationships they forge with JD, form the novel’s backbone. The first-person prose is acerbic, witty and at times achingly poignant. The novel deftly handles issues of religion, balancing JD’s cutting appraisals of what he perceives as hypocrisy with gentler voices that display the power of spirituality without seeming sanctimonious. Although JD’s musings are at times whiny and self-indulgent, he’s a relatable character throughout—flawed but trying to find purpose. His keen perceptions of others and their motives, coupled with his sensitivity toward underdogs, make him a character to root for. Overall, the subject matter may make this a dark read for younger teens, but it’s a story to which many will connect and in which they may ultimately find hope.
A compelling tale of teenage depression handled with humor and sensitivity.