Have you ever looked at leftover snow and ice clinging to a Midwestern cornfield and thought, “iced gray vomit”? If so, you’ll be in the right hands with Brian Allen Carr, whose new novel “Opioid, Indiana,” opens with that observation from its 17-year-old narrator, a Texas kid who’s interested in books and people but struggles to find footing in his new town.
Carr brings a wide range of ideas into the project, from the legacy of white supremacy to the desolation of rural drug addicts, but they are distilled neatly and convincingly into a near-perfect anthem of disaffected youth in a small frozen town.
Riggle, an orphan shipped north to live with his meth-addled uncle and girlfriend, sees Indiana from an outsider’s perspective. He’s white, but he doesn’t fit in with the majority. The Hoosiers’ flagrant Stars and Bars waving strikes him as an “appropriation,” given that the state banned slavery before the Civil War and strongly supported the Union. His only friend, Bennett, a mixed race kid who can pass as black or white depending on the situation, becomes a crucial ally on Riggle’s weeklong quest to find his missing uncle, raise the rent money, and survive his high school suspension over a weed pen that wasn’t even his.
Riggle does like weed, though, and his self-medicating allows the author to describe Indiana in dreamy, Denis Johnson-esque imagery, where sun-drenched snowdrifts play tricks on the mind, making Riggle think he’s walking through sand dunes at the Texas seashore. More than the loss of home, Riggle grieves his mother, whom he conjures through shadow play she taught him before she died. While the interludes begin to feel like unnecessary padding — present day, gun-crazed, Trump-infected Indiana is wrenchingly alive on the page — they are a necessary antidote to the treatment Riggle gets from his uncle, who gives the impression of someone who would “kick a dog and give you the shirt off his back,” and administers beatings in the name of nurture.
“Opioid” reminds me of a book I would have devoured in high school, read half a dozen times, and told all my friends about. Riggle’s journal writing is urgent and convincing, especially when reflecting on moments of growth, beginning in the kitchen of a trendy restaurant called Broth, where he learns the ropes from a caustic but generous chef and a waiter who gives him a tip on where to find his uncle. On a long walk in the cold, Riggle wonders if he’s to blame for all that’s gone wrong. I wanted to reach through fiction’s magical tunnel of time and space and tell him it’s going to be OK.
David Varno is a writer in Brooklyn and a member of the National Book Critics Circle board.
By: Brian Allen Carr.
Publisher: Soho Press, 212 pages, $16.