Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Greek Tragedy: Crazy by Han Nolan

Shelby starts again. "My mother wants me to help her die."

I feel Shelby's hand claw my back and grab my shirt as though she were looking for something to hold on to, to save her and keep her from falling into that terrible place where those kinds of thoughts live, but I know there is no holding on, not for any of us. We have become, through no fault of our own, these falling bodies. Just like O'Hagan's odd mathematical equations for falling bodies, and as scary as that is, sitting here with Shelby, Pete, and Haze makes me feel for the first time that I'm not alone. At least we are all falling through space together.

Jason Papadopoulos is alone. His mom had died eight months before after a sudden stroke on a hike with Jason, and since that time his father has drifted back into the mental illness he's fought all this adult life, believing that he is being pursued constantly by the Furies of mythology. Knowing that he is the only person who can induce his father to eat and take the few medications they can afford, Jason struggles to hide their predicament from his neighbors and his school. Without his father's income, their house is deteriorating around them and there is no money for winter heat and little for food, much less shoes and haircuts. Jason loved his mother, but now he struggles to suppress his resentment of her for leaving him to deal with his father's increasingly scary madness, and he is haunted by an almost-repressed memory of his father's insane attempt to bury him alive at the age of six.

Jason's only companions are what he calls the "Greek chorus" which speak to him from inside his own head.

Ever since the fifth grade, I've had this imaginary audience in my head who follow me around and watch me like I'm the star in a movie. I talk to them, and yeah, they talk to me, although I know they aren't really there.

Jason's chorus gives him what he needs. There's Fat Bald Guy with a Mustache, the voice of know-it-all middle-aged wisdom, Aunt Bea from The Andy Griffith show, all motherly solicitude, Sexy Lady, who tells him he's both cool and hot, and Crazy Glue, a teen slangster with a running ironic commentary on everything. But even his personal chorus is not enough to keep Jason's anxiety from spilling over into occasional erratic behavior, like writing his social studies exam without capital letters, spaces between words, or punctuation.

The school places Jason in a support group, led by school psychologist Mrs. Gomez, with three other students with equally difficult family problems, Haze and Pete, and also Shelby, whose mother is dying of ALS. Initially resentful and determined to conceal his own problems for fear of being removed from his home but frightened by his father's physical deterioration during an illness, Jason turns to his friends for help. They respond supportively, but when Mrs. Gomez is brought into the medical intervention, the situation becomes obvious to her and Jason is placed against his will with a foster family. His time there begins terribly when he is stabbed by another foster child who resents sharing his room, and Jason then learns that he is to be denied the right even to check on his father when he is released for lack of insurance to go back home alone.

Jason's Greek chorus fails him in these circumstances, but his new friends from the group do not, and when Shelby's mother dies, sharing her wild and deep grief somehow brings a kind of catharsis to Jason and he experiences his own grief fully. When he does, he begins to recognize his deep anger at his parents' seeming abandonment of him, and to forgive both them and himself.

I recall the dream--the ocean, the darkness, a chilling terror.... I'm fighting, struggling to breathe, to break free...but wait--no, it's not me. That's not me down there. It's Dad. Dad's the one buried alive--my dad, my brilliant dad, buried beneath a craziness he can't break free of or control.

It isn't me at all.

Han Solo's forthcoming Crazy (Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt, 2010) is a moving psychological coming-of-age novel in which the not-quite-fifteen year-old protagonist comes to realize that he is not alone, that his parents' sad destiny need not be his own. As his friend Shelby puts it, Jason can be the good that comes out of his parent's tragedy. This is a complex novel, made understandable by the running commentary of Jason's chorus, an emotional roller coaster ride for the reader, all with the difficult theme that as long as we are alive, we can be more than the sum of our past.

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