Good news for readers who love coming-of-age stories and don’t mind their fiction soaked in drugs: “Northern Lights,” a debut novel by Hibbing, Minn., native Raymond Strom, might be described as a cross between two of the greats in those categories: “The Outsiders,” by S.E. Hinton, and “Jesus’ Son,” by Denis Johnson.
The writing is completely straightforward, more Hinton than Johnson. And like Hinton’s narrator, Strom’s character is soft and innocent when we meet him but is sucked into a gritty environment and transformed by it. Rather than the urban street gangs of “The Outsiders,” the environment in “Northern Lights” is the world of small-town drug abuse, where getting high has replaced all other rituals of friendship, as in Johnson’s famous stories.
It’s the summer of 1997 — Shane Stephenson is on his way to Minneapolis to start college. He stops in Holm because it’s the last address he has for his mother, who abandoned him and his father long ago. From the minute he arrives, he rubs the locals the wrong way. With his long blond hair, slim physique and androgynous features, he is easily mistaken for a girl, especially from behind, and that is a mistake the local rednecks do not like to make. Shane has never been with either a boy or a girl, but his experiences over his summer in Holm will help him figure out who he is.
With just a few dollars left in his pocket, he ends up renting his mother’s former apartment. He takes a job at a restaurant and tries to see what he can find out about where she’s disappeared to this time. It’s not a big town, so he quickly runs into all the people who will become part of his life.
First among them is Jenny, a beautiful shoplifter and graffiti artist. When she’s not robbing the Pump N’Munch or spray-painting train cars, she has quite a job on her hands taking care of her mother, a drugged-up vegetable since Walmart came to town and put her pet store out of business. Shane adores Jenny, but he’s also attracted to Russell, one of the many drug- and alcohol-addled losers in Holm’s young adult social set. Shane’s most dangerous adversary is a redneck named Sven Svenson, a bully with a pickup truck, a Confederate flag and a business selling speed.
I’m never going to get out of this town, moans Jenny at one point. “All we do is sit around smoking weed, like we’re waiting for something better to come along but what are we waiting for? Will we just get high every day until we die?”
The only thing that comes along for these kids is harder and harder drugs and bigger trouble. The series of disasters, chase scenes and shootouts at the ending of the book is a bit amateurish — I thought again of “The Outsiders” — but Shane Stephenson is a keeper.
Marion Winik is the author of “The Baltimore Book of the Dead” and the host of the Weekly Reader podcast. She is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.
By: Raymond Strom.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 253 pages, $26.
Event: 7 p.m. Feb. 28, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.