Online Edition: Summer 2005

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Looking for Alaska

John Green

Dutton Books ($15.99)

by Cindra Halm

James Kirkwood's Good Times, Bad Times, first published in 1968 and now tragically out of print, set the bar high for the "I went to boarding school and had a life-altering adventure" novel. John Green's Looking for Alaska meets the challenge: it modernizes the fish-bowl context of the teenage drama, foregrounds the essential confusions of peer influence, and asserts the voices of smart, flawed characters to build a compelling narrative.

Miles Halter, an observational, philosophical, and bored 16-year-old, asks to transfer to his father's alma mater boarding school to experience, in Rabelais' dying words, "a Great Perhaps." When he meets Alaska, a troubled, fetching, feminist rebel, the concept becomes engaged in reality. Miles, for better and worse, immerses himself in hive-mind schemes of personal and group upheaval. Though the action centers on how individuals interact with and resist the dynamic of the collective, the psychological conflict here is primarily internal, as each character struggles to find his/her own integrity within the bonds of relationship.

That a pivotal event occurs is built into the structure's "before" and "after" sections. The reader may feel the tension of time ticking both toward and away from disaster; the strategy contributes a sense of continuum to the teen world's impulsive, invincible perspective. Add to that pranks which veer into danger, booze-and-cigarette induced choices, and first forays into romance and sex, and a passionate portrait of present moments as well as anticipated fantasies develops. Green is especially adept at pulling back from the flashing action of the instant to reveal the characters' reflective insights and their vulnerable, full-spectrum emerging consciousnesses.

Like many similarly-themed stories, Looking for Alaska may vacillate between the adult and the young adult bookstore shelves. Although anyone 16 and older will likely enjoy the book, it may especially touch the adult who has more diverse, complex memories of both personal and literary experiences with which to welcome it.

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