Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Street Pharm, by Allison van Diepen

According to Thomas Friedman, the world is flat. But here is what I am thinking: the world is flat, but it's also straight. Of course, the world is not completely straight, just as the world isn’t entirely flat. But it is getting flatter and straighter all the time.

Or so I am thinking after reading Street Pharm, by Allison van Diepen.

This first novel, recommended by the Young Adult Library Services Association for reluctant young adult readers, chronicles the struggles and lifestyle of Ty Johnson, a sixteen year old African American teenager living in Brooklyn and attempting to keep solvent a drug empire established by his father. Keeping his father's illicit enterprise going is no easy task, given the kinds of characters who are drawn to it, the vigilance of New York's finest, and the repeated efforts of other drug lords and would-be king-pins to take it over (remember: it's a flat world out there, so challenges come from all directions, including outside of New York City).

One of the pleasant surprises of this novel is that it is so easy to root for Ty Johnson as he takes on these challenges. Even though Ty deals drugs, he doesn’t touch the stuff himself (the one time he does, he has an awful experience, which reinforces his commitment to straightness). He is determined not to get involved with women who are attracted to fame and easy money, because he fears that this will diminish his entrepreneurial focus and commitment. Most important, Ty is a pretty smart guy, who applies with creativity ideas drawn from bushido and Machiavelli (at one point, even using these ideas to critique the Iraq war). Like a young, promising, yet somewhat naive CEO, Ty Johnson is determined not to let anything distract him from his goal of making a lot of money quickly and eventually escaping to a better world--a goal that just about any person, adolescent or adult, can identify with.

Street Pharm is a terrific book, a lot of fun to read, both melodramatic and realistic at the same time. For sure, there is language and sexual situations that some adolescents may not be ready for; on the other hand, older adolescents--especially reluctant readers--are likely to enjoy the multiple references to street culture and urban conditions. Ultimately, though, Street Pharm is about more than the drug trade and the crazy lifestyle that people involved in it lead. It is about the advantages of keeping straight, of not smoking or drinking, of staying in school, and rejecting material and emotional imperatives in favor of what is right and in the best interest of all.

In this sense, Street Pharm--like Played--represents a current preoccupation with straightness: witness the recent moves of several states to institute smoking bans, as well as the increased attention to and rigorous accountability with regard to steriods and the Iraq war. The next thing to go should be caffeine. But, of course, caffeine helps to keep us straight, so this might be the one drug we will overlook in our quest for straightness.

In any case, check out Steet Pharm, by Allison van Diepen. And check out the video below, for another example of a recent text that both celebrates and critiques urban youth culture all at the same time (be forewarned, there is some explicit language in this text, too, that has sparked a bit of controversy).

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