Book Reviews

Review: Opioid, Indiana • A week in Trump’s rural America through a teen’s eyes

Title: Opioid, Indiana
Author: Brian Allen Carr
Genre: Young adult contemporary fiction
Published on: September 17, 2019 by Soho Press

Disclaimer: I received a digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This has not changed my rating or review. Thank you to the publisher for access to the galley.

Synopsis

During a week-long suspension from school, a teenage transplant to impoverished rural Indiana searches for a job, the whereabouts of his vanished drug-addicted guardian, and meaning in the America of the Trump years.

“Seventeen-year-old Riggle is living in rural Indiana with his uncle and uncle’s girlfriend after the death of both of his parents. Now his uncle has gone missing, probably on a drug binge. It’s Monday, and $800 in rent is due Friday. Riggle, who’s been suspended from school, has to either find his uncle or get the money together himself. His mission exposes him to a motley group of Opioid locals—encounters by turns perplexing, harrowing, and heartening. Meanwhile, Riggle marks each day by remembering the mythology his late mother invented for him about how the days got their names.

With amazing directness and insight, Carr explores what it’s like to be a high school kid in in the age of Trump, a time of economic inequality, addiction, confederate flags, and mass shootings. A work of empathy and insight that pierces to the heart of our moment through an unforgettable protagonist.” — Goodreads

Oh boy, what a ride this book was! I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t completely glued to the page from the first chapter. I even finished it in a couple of sittings all in the same day. Is that the best idea when reading a book as bleak and depressing as this? Probably not!

In all honesty, I was not expecting Opioid, Indiana to be this sad. Apparently, the words “Opioid,” “impoverished,” and the trailer park on the cover weren’t enough of a clue for me! 🤡

But, if you must know something about my reading tastes, it’s that I’m all for a sad story. Which is why there were a lot of things I adored in Opioid, Indiana.

An Honest and Authentic Slice-of-Life Story

This is the biggest selling point of this book, in my opinion. It tells the story of Opioid, Indiana (yes, that’s the fictional name of this town) through the eyes of Riggle, a seventeen-year-old boy. Even better, it does so incredibly well.

While I don’t see myself reflected in Riggle’s character, he felt so real and authentic throughout the story. It’s a dangerous line to walk, portraying a teenage boy, but Carr handles it brilliantly. Riggle’s most private thoughts feel like those of a teenager going through a lot of rough things. The way he acts is also very plausible—he could be a person you and I know!

Since the plot takes a backseat in this novel (meaning, nothing too crazy or far-fetched happens), we get to live life through Riggle. He’s just a high-school student struggling to make it all work and to make sense of a world in shambles. There’s no “chosen one” or any Hollywood-like adventures. Everything is so down-to-earth it feels authentic.

Fantasy and Reality Blurr Together Perfectly

All that said, Carr manages to add a touch of the fantastical to this novel. You may be wondering how this can be possible, in a small and impoverished Indiana town of all places. Well, through Riggle’s connection with his mother.

Every chapter begins with a small explanation of how the days of the week got their names. These were stories Riggle’s mother told him when he was little, and to which he has been clinging to. They’re silly, they’re charming, and they’ll make your heart hurt for Riggle.

Without spoiling anything, there are points in the story in which these bedtime stories blend into reality. These snippets were so well done! As a major fan of magical realism, I loved seeing Carr include these surreal moments in the narrative.

Politics Are Also Included, and They Shape the Story

It’s not rare for young-adult novels to have political themes. So, while Opioid, Indiana isn’t revolutionary on that front, it doesn’t make politics the whole point. Rather, it uses them to frame Riggle’s experiences.

Since this story is set in rural Indiana, you can guess what political themes are brought to light. Opioid addiction (duh), Confederate pride, racial prejudices, and economical downturn all shape Riggle’s life.

Modern-Day Holden Caulfield, Hello!

While reading Opioid, Indiana, I couldn’t not see all the resemblances to Holden Caulfield, the main character in Catcher in the Rye. Moody teenager denouncing the world? Check. Novel that takes place over a short period of time and nothing much happens? Check. Seeing the world through the eyes of the same character? Check. A boy who doesn’t fit in and wants to find his ultimate purpose in life? Check.

But don’t be scared by this comparison! Even if you couldn’t stomach Catcher in the Rye, there’s a good chance you’ll be enthralled by this book. Even though it’s hella bleak, it pulls you in right from the start.

Besides, Trump’s rural America is a much more relatable setting to us now than post-war America. Even if you’re not a teen boy and don’t really understand how they work (me neither), there’s plenty to like here.

But Not Everything’s Peachy…

Obviously, this isn’t a perfect book. It’s entertaining, sticks with you, and has some brilliant moments. But it’s still not my favorite book of the year.

My biggest problem with this novel was not being able to really empathise with Riggle. A part of that is due to the fact that I have never experienced the same problems as he has. Theoretically, his struggle is there (it’s very obvious, duh), but I had a hard time feeling much besides pity.

Secondly, the way language is used is hurtful, sometimes. It’s clearly not the point of the novel to be politically correct (after all, what seventeen-year-old boy in rural America is?), but it was still hard to stomach some of the language. There are slurs thrown around at some characters and some yucky (read: sex-related) scenes between these pages.

Lastly, I feel like there could have been more depth in describing some situations and characters. A good example is how addiction is portrayed: not like the complex issue it is. Sometimes it felt like there was either “bad” or “good” concerning some topics, which did not match the approach taken to other issues. I do understand this decision, but it made me yearn for something more.

All in all, this is a great book to pick up if you want to dive into the mind of a dysfunctional teen. In my opinion, you should read it alongside Catcher in the Rye and compare the two. It’s a great portrayal of the often-forgotten current-day rural America.

Rating

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