Dirtbags: that's what we called them in high school. They were the kids who stood on the school lawn in foul weather, blowing plumes of gray smoke from beneath hooded sweatshirts that were inadequate for the harsh winters of upstate New York. Indoors they stank of cigarettes, their eyes glassy and bloodshot from pot. As a rule, they were dim, plain and poor -- destined neither to fit into the social order nor rise above it.
But if they lacked appeal, they oozed pathos. That's what sets them apart from the privileged, gifted and loved adolescent drug addicts in Anne Lamott's "Imperfect Birds," a novel sure to send some parents into a tiz of worry: Could my high-achieving kid be driven to drink and dope by SAT anxiety? Stage parents can cease to cringe. Lamott's characters aren't stressed out; they're bored. But the overabundance of their lives makes it hard to sympathize with their travails.
At the book's heart are 17-year-old physics whiz Rosie, and her scared parents, Elizabeth and James. Rosie, along with her two straight-A pals, Jody and Alice (as well as all their classmates), swallows, sniffs and scarfs up anything: "in a sea of fog, they had ended up smoking dope under a tree with some homeless guy. It turned out not to have been a good idea." You think?
Experimentation is the stuff of young adult novels. But in "Imperfect Birds," there's no cause for a whole town of self-destructive teens, all vying, by turns, to die on the road, slash their wrists and get carted off to rehab. As a result, their addled states seem less pitiable than narratively willed.
Lamott, author of such bestsellers as "Operating Instructions" and "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life," has earned a loyal following for her nonfiction. So it's too bad that her novel "Imperfect Birds" never takes off.