In my youth, I was very much the disaffected young white guy still so annoyingly prevalent today. My exasperated mother asked 14-year-old me if my “hero” was Mack Bolan, of the Don Pendleton Executioner thrillers I had taken to reading. Something drew my teenage self to that series’ worldview of violent payback against the clear-cut villains of crime and liberalism, presented with crazed titles like Miami Massacre, stories filled with exotic weaponry like Ingram Mac-10s and Heckler & Koch MP5s.
Teenage boys are generally attracted to anything that promises simple solutions: Tell me what to do, who to be. A hero gives a roadmap but never makes the journey seem easy or cheaply righteous; Mack Bolan was no hero.
Nevertheless, in 2019, Bolan’s perspective has ascended. Streams of digestible data broadcast bite-size slogans reducing knowledge to manipulative simplicity. Teenage boys are battered with demands for their rage and excuses for their self-pity. Reflective spaces feel like a relic.
In Brian Allen Carr’s novel Opioid, Indiana, the 17-year-old orphaned narrator Riggle Quick is forced into sudden silence, but for pragmatic reasons: his phone hit its free data limit. Last time he went over, his bill-paying Uncle Joe beat him up: “Fuck with a man’s money you get hands.” It’s a good-natured avuncular beatdown; afterwards they share a beer. Still, Riggle doesn’t want his nose punched again.
Forced into a data-less quiet space, Riggle manages to become a hero in which a teenaged reader could see himself—a roadmap to the right way, more or less. Not good or bad, just right.
Carr’s narrative gives Riggle a week off from school, after he’s suspended for admitting he dropped a marijuana-contaminated vape pen (it’s never clear if it’s actually his). He has a mission: the now-missing Uncle Joe was responsible for $800 in rent, and Riggle’s Aunt Peggy needs him to scour the meth-addled streets of “Opioid, Indiana” and track Joe down.
“I tried to create a young white male as kind of a thought experiment, of what are the best possible thoughts this person could have in this kind of scenario?” Carr told The Daily Beast. “How could he seek to be optimistic? How would I think of things if I were a younger man?
He has to find money. There’s a challenge beyond just thinking about the world. That kind of propels him,” Carr said. “I tried to keep him uncertain. If I made him super-certain about any choice, you’re going to get that writer’s preachiness of ‘that’s how it should be.’ I tried to show him learning, not me preaching.”
Riggle’s weeklong odyssey avoids easy moral lessons or melodramatic decisions. His town’s rough landscape provides only small encounters and poignant revelations. He becomes heroic because any teenage choice is tough, so why not try to make the right ones.
Learning at a young age is difficult, to allow oneself to break free of that “super-certainty” that someone like Mack Bolan preached to me.
In his 2015 essay, “Revenge of the Lost Boys,” Tom Nichols examined young white criminals, mass killers, and others fueled by self-righteousness in their demented purposes: “They seem to share little beyond a stubborn immaturity wedded to a towering narcissism. Stuck in perpetual adolescence, they see only their own imagined virtue amidst irredeemable corruption.
“Working life is out of the question: these are young men who imagine themselves cut out for more important things,” he writes.
In 2015, Nichols could offer no solution beyond recognizing “there has to be a change in social attitudes, but I’m stumped about how to make that happen in a nation as averse to hard introspection as ours.”
In Carr’s novel, Riggle’s experiences never provide blunt solutions, only a few possible paths through the thicket. Riggle is on his own. Without data beyond texting, and lacking Google’s quick answers, introspection has to follow.
“Data was such a precious thing… I couldn’t fact check my own thoughts on my phone. I couldn’t run anything by the internet. I just had to decide according to me. It occurred to me that people never used to have phones. They had to decide stuff just on whims.
“These days, you think a thing might be more likely, and then you look it up. You get to skip a step. The step where you choose and fail. Or choose and succeed. I don’t know if it makes us better or worse, but it makes us different than we used to be. Since my data was gone, I got to think… and be fine with it.”
Carr’s insight isn’t new. It’s similar to Neil Postman’s exploration of Benedictine monks inventing the mechanical clock in the 1300s to conduct prayers on a set schedule; they inadvertently created the bedrock of capitalism. Of course, Postman didn’t write in the voice of a teenage boy.
In that essay, “Judgment of Thamus,” Postman writes that the Egyptian king Thamus criticized the concept of writing: “‘Those who acquire writing will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful… [writing] is a receipt for recollection, not for memory.” As with the internet, Thamus was right. But, Postman writes, that ignores all the world-changing benefits of writing, same as the internet, same as a smartphone: “Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that.”
Postman’s ideas about these compromises are not that different from Riggle’s ruminations, while written at a higher level.
I can see a teenage boy reading about Riggle wrestling with the same ideas and seeing themselves in those struggling but optimistically searching moments. Then they’ll be ready for Postman.
Carr’s dialogue, realistic and pointed, was emotionally inspired by classroom memories the author recalled from his time teaching in a variety of places—New Mexico, Indiana, Texas—to students similar to his characters. Students who worked hard and often didn’t.
“The worst thing you can do is tell them the decisions are going to affect their life for forever. That’s a lot of weight, when it’s not fully their own decisions yet,” Carr said. “I had students where both parents were dead, or a father was in jail for crack and stabbing his girlfriend, in a small town where everybody knew. Anybody who can stay optimistic in that situation, or find the humor in it, that’s heroic for sure.”
“More than anything else, I tried not to be judgmental,” Carr said. “I told them, ‘You do understand you could work harder. If I can’t make you do that, that’s fine, but you’re kicking the can down the road.’
Many of the book’s conversations reflect paradoxes like Carr’s students talked about—questions where kids don’t have answers but raise the questions and work things out. Like why water is “wet” or how Riggle thinks, “It’s always funny to me how if something seems like it’s for rich people, overly-straight men think it’s ‘gay.’ At the same time, a man is more manly if he can pay for things. Like, how does that even work?”
The healthiest attribute that Riggle possesses—and it’s an attribute that serves as a guidepost for readers of his own age—is his lack of narcissism, or even expecting too much of himself. As Carr said, Riggle doesn’t reach any super-certain conclusions. He just asks questions, wonders why, and gets back to the day at hand. That introspection gives him his own ideas, his own strategies.
Nichols “Lost Boys” article correctly identified that lack of introspection in today’s culture. Riggle only becomes introspective when it’s forced on him. But no adult can tell a boy to look inward—there would be the preaching. A teenager needs to understand introspection from somebody who asks their kind of questions. Carr’s creation of his characters by eavesdropping on his students could not have worked any other way.
Riggle has the real-world concern of any kid: He needs $800, and he has no fantasies of turning his 174 Twitter followers into sudden celebrity. While looking for his missing uncle, he goes out looking for a restaurant job because he’s at least able to cook a decent omelet. He meets a chef at the back door of a local restaurant ‘Broth,’ who lets him fix her one, “because I’m hungry and I don’t feel like cooking.”
The chef later invites him to cover a dishwashing shift for $80 in cash—not $800, but a start. When Riggle goes back to the kitchen, “Everyone I saw smiled at me, like they knew I was coming, and it felt good. I don’t know. I’m not sure the last time I’d felt that way. I was new, but I was approved, I guess.”
Plenty of high school kids’ first jobs are as dishwashers—mine was. The kitchen is a job rarely shown with the dignity that Carr grants:
“The shift came at me fierce. There was water and food and noise and steam. Hell-hot pans shrieked as they hit the water. The perfume of grease sat in my throat like cheese. There was music to the disorder, a dance to the melee… my pants got soaked bad enough that when I went to take a piss, my dick had pruned like it was a finger and I’d been swimming all summer.”
While a decent worker, Riggle is often the sort of layabout who adults could mock as maladjusted. But Carr didn’t create Riggle for adult readers. Like washing dishes, a teenager should relate to Riggle considering the prospect of armed teachers, texting his friend about which teachers would be the best or worst with a gun. Kids are the ones on that front line, after all.
“Can you imagine them telling you to be quiet if you knew they had a gun in their pocket? You know how awkward that would be? The teacher would be like ‘Sit down and be quiet or…’
"‘You’ll shoot me?’ some student would say. And then the gauntlet would be thrown. I can’t think of a more heroic way of dying than having a teacher shoot you rather than sitting down and shutting the fuck up. Hell, they’d have to name a hallway after you.”
It is certainly the gallows humor that 10th graders share every day, even if such “jokes” rightly horrify adults.
Some storylines in Opioid, Indiana do wrap up a bit too conveniently. The money problem resolves through a contrived twist. Several stream-of-consciousness passages will work for a few readers, not all. A few situations veer toward melodrama, probably because inspiration came from Carr’s imagination more than Carr’s true-life classroom recollections. That’s an unfair way to judge fiction—not being nonfiction enough—but it’s a risk when the real world’s an ingredient.
Parents can find plenty to disapprove of—the pot smoking, the bitter jokes, some government fraud. Riggle steals a bike but quickly gets an amusing comeuppance. Teen boys are kind of numbskulls, and the whole book grew out of Carr’s disdain for youth culture’s embrace of vaping: “Big flavor, addictive, false—even pretending to blow smoke,” Carr said. “It’s every bad thing about humanity in one device.”
From that kernel of an idea, Carr wrote his short novel almost in a week’s real time, to capture the rush. “It’s the most instinctual thing I’ve done, probably the least fawned over.
“Everything is what I thought my students would say or did say; very, very many, put into one entity,” he said. “The snapshot of a life.”
It adds up to a book for when an adult has no words for a boy wrestling with a world that doesn’t grasp them, thinks they’re dangerous and misguided. Someone else’s words can give an idea for how a kid can confront each day.
A few years after my dalliance with Mack Bolan’s extremism, I picked up Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline, about a military school. I had just joined the Army and thought myself sure of things.
Conroy’s book told the story of Will McLean, a kid then about my age. He was unwaveringly loyal to his friends, and always on the side of the underdog. He took hard positions against bad odds. He was self-righteous but knew that was his fatal flaw. The tale ended in heartbreak and disarray, and McLean lived with the costs the way one must. Reading Conroy didn’t make me better or worse; he only taught me what life might look like, anytime I took a stand.
Riggle also has no clear solutions or shortcuts, just imperfect effort. Most teenage boys should find something of themselves in a character who shows what it looks like on their own ground floor. I hope they can see a roadmap through their own struggles. Riggle is a hero for showing that perfection isn’t the requirement to goodness.