On Tuesday February 12th at Konikuniya Bookstore on 6th Avenue in New York City I saw Raymond Strom do a Q&A for his new debut novel, Northern Lights. At one point an audience member asked Strom about his inspiration in writing the book, and he explained that an essential question guided the novel:
Why were we such thrill seekers as teenagers?
I relate deeply to the characters in Strom’s novel—to their family of origin stories and also their current destructive choices. While I do not have Strom’s answer to his question, coming from a similar background, and having plenty of experience with many inappropriate choices when I was young, I do have mine.
Northern Lights is about Shane Stephenson—who also narrates the book—an eighteen-year-old on his way to college in Minneapolis in the late 90s. But he’s far from your average, bright-eyed teenager on his way to school, excited for frat parties, tailgating at football games, and student council. His alcoholic mom abandoned him when he was a kid and his dad just died, having left him with his verbally abusive uncle who calls Shane a “faggot” for his long hair and unclear sexual orientation. Feeling out of options and very alone, Shane embarks on a quest to find his mother in her last-known whereabouts before he starts school. He travels to Holm, Minnesota, a small town in the midst of its economic and social collapse—to find her. This is where the story begins.
While he’s looking, Shane makes some friends: a couple, Jay and Mary, who drives around doing drugs and seeking out any adventure they can find. Jenny, a girl who also does drugs, shoplifts compulsively, and looks for any trouble she can find, with no father and whose mom is clinically depressed after Wal-Mart forced her local business into closing. Russell, an angry in-the-closet gay alcoholic who actually doesn’t do a lot of drugs but drinks until blackout everyday. There’s a lot of violence and drugs in Northern Lights: soft drugs, hard drugs, drugs you’ve done, drugs only your scary friend did and then they disappeared for a bunch of years or ended up dead. The drug scenes are written with precise details (i.e, if you want to learn how to make crack, read this book).
Northern Lights is character-driven, but the fundamental story that pushes the plot is Shane trying to find his mother. In that sense the novel has a mystery element to it, but Shane is no Sherlock Holmes, particularly when he’s on a meth-binge. His friends, Jenny, Jay and Mary, and Russell, all try to help him though, partially because they really have anything better to do. Imagine a long episode of Scooby Doo where Shaggy, Fred, Daphne, and Velma are all smoking crack and shooting meth. There are even a couple lovable dogs that protect them.
Abandonment is all over these pages. Getting to know these characters more and more, it is clear that it haunts every single one of them, and influences so many of their behaviors. The more details Strom reveals of their background, the more empathy they garner. I felt for all of the characters in the book, even the bullies (with his long hair and quiet temperament, Shane gets bullied a lot). Even the racists.
What’s probably the saddest form of abandonment in this book? The town. America, as exemplified in Holm, was abandoned when these factories left. In this book you see what’s left when the dust settled: a bunch of poor, down and out people trying to make sense of it all, or simply killing themselves slowly with destructive behaviors. You see these people struggling to make ends meet, but also struggling for a sense of self, a sense of duty. They’re just all in the woods getting high, complaining how it must be better anywhere else, wanting to be anywhere.
There’s even a line about Jenny that reads:
She wanted to be anywhere else.
I said before that I have my answer to Strom’s question about thrill seeking.
Why were we such thrill seekers as teenagers?
Similarly to Shane, I grew up in a chaotic home: alcoholic mom and dad. They fought. There was violence, police, fires; at age 9 Dad left and moved to Florida. After that, it didn’t get much better. Mom dated abusive alcoholics exclusively for the next fifteen years. You would think, having come from all this chaos, that I would have tried to avoid that mess. That I would try to not re-live the insanity of that life. But no. Like Shane, I did everything in my power ages 17-25 to run headfirst into the brimstone. I did everything (except for one particular drug) these characters did in this book, and more. And why? Why did I choose that?
My answer: I was used to it. Chaos made me comfortable, like I was home again. Insanity was all I knew for the first 15 years of my life, so of course I sought it out in my early adult life. Conversely, peace and calm, feeling safe and loved, made me, and Shane, and Jenny, and Russell, and Jay, and Mary, very uncomfortable. It made us want to run away.
by Raymond Strom
Simon & Schuster; 272 p.