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Bookcover

Everything's valid in 'Smack'

'Smack'
by Melvin Burgess

Avon. $6.99

Review by Nancy Matson

August 2, 1999
Web posted at: 12:42 p.m. EDT (1642 GMT)

(CNN) -- The funny thing about "Smack" is that the first half of the book isn't about heroin at all. It's a portrait of a group of English teens who run away from home and create a community of interconnected squats throughout Bristol, where they party, pick through dumpsters for treasures, and still manage to call occasionally their parents to let them know they're all right. While there certainly is some drug use, mostly in the form of marijuana and hash brownies, for the first half of the book its use is almost incidental. It isn't until well into the book that two of the main characters, 14-year-olds Tar and Emma, sniff their first heroin out of a piece of foil with a burning match under it. The story mirrors the focus of its characters: Once they start doing smack, it becomes the center of their lives and therefore of the book.

Melvin Burgess, who tells the story from multiple points of view, has the rare ability to convince the reader of the validity of each character's opinions in turn. In one of Gemma's chapters, as she complained about how pushy Vonny (Gemma's housemate) is, always trying to get Gemma to go home to her parents, I, too, felt her outrage. In the very next chapter, when Vonny described how Gemma was headed for trouble if she didn't go home, it was completely obvious to me that she was right.

While I'm sure some readers will interpret this as an anti-drug novel, that interpretation misses much of the point. While "Smack" pulls no punches in its description of heroin addiction, it also showcases the appeal of the kids' pre-heroin lifestyle. Few would defend some of the kids' wholehearted acceptance of shoplifting as a way of avoiding work, but it is also true that some of these runaways, being underage, couldn't get jobs even if they wanted to. And the sense of community among the teens is for the most part very real -- at least among the non-heroin users. When young Tar and Gemma arrive on the scene, they are immediately taken in and offered shelter, food and cigarettes in exchange for doing some work around the house. And when Tar sees an art book that he loves -- he says owning it would be like "owning the sky" -- his three housemates spend a week casing the store until they can "liberate" it for him.

Though many adults seem to think the main problem of runaways is that they're not at home with their parents, this book makes it clear that these kids wouldn't necessarily be better off if they hadn't left home. Tar ran away from two severely alcoholic parents, one of whom beat him. None of his new friends expect him to call home. "Smack" is an unsentimental, yet not unsympathetic, look at a group of young people who want to avoid the conventional lives of their parents, and do so in a way they never expected. No matter what books you have read that deal with young people with drug problems, you'd be hard-pressed to find another book covering this subject matter that is this gripping and authentic. It's a good read for teen-agers and adults alike.

Nancy Matson is the author of the juvenile novel "The Boy Trap," to be published this fall by Front Street/Cricket Books. Visit her Web site.


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