Book review: No Alternative by William Dickerson

This is a book I reviewed for I read a book once.com:

William Dickerson presents an interesting commentary on the culture and music of the mid-90s.  From amazon.com:

NO ALTERNATIVE is a coming-of-age drama that drills a hole into the world of suburban American teenagers in the early 90’s.

Thomas Harrison is determined to start his own alternative band, an obsession that blinds him to what’s either the mental collapse, or the eruption of musical genius, of his little sister, Bridget. Bridget boldly rejects her brother’s music, and the music of an entire generation of slackers, by taking on the persona of an X-rated gangsta’ rapper named Bri Da B.

NO ALTERNATIVE probes the lives of rebellious kids who transition into adulthood via the distortion pedals of their lives in an era when the Sex, Drugs & Rock’n’Roll ethos was amended to include Suicide in its phrase.

I picked this book because the time period intrigued me.  I was the tender age of 12 in 1994, the year the action of this book takes place.  Also, I love music and love reading about the influence of current events and culture on the songs of that time period.

Has it really been nearly two decades?

This book slammed me back into the mid-90s. I was half-tempted to find my flannels and baby doll tees.

But underneath all of the nostalgia, there is a deep current of social commentary that shines through from each chapter:  “We want so desperately to be fooled into believing that as long as we build a perfect white picket fence along our property line, everything will be perfect behind it”.

Thomas is a senior at an exclusive all boys Jesuit high school.  His idol, Kurt Cobain, committed suicide six months before the narrative begins.  Thomas, like every other Generation Xer, longs to be in a band and make music.  After his period of mourning, he dusts off his drums and sets out to start a garage band.

His sister, meanwhile, has no love for grunge.  She likes gansta rap, the more offensive the better.  She finds a keyboard one day and starts writing and performing her own music.

Bridget also has mental issues and in the 90s, antidepressants were becoming mainstream, and kids were being put on them at alarming rates.

Their parents are upright pillars of society.  Their father is a judge sitting on the Supreme Court of New York, and their mother is an aging hippie.

The different layers of teenage angst, social commentary, history and music blend together to create the story that alternates from the story of Thomas and Bridget to a dissertation on Generation X.

I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Thomas’ school.  My husband graduated from Salasianum in 1997 (the alma mater of the Vice-President).  He could be the one telling these stories about what it was like in an all-boys school in this time period.  I frequently had to stop reading and ask him about a passage or quote that I thought would ring true for him.

But the universal truths of adolescence are also prominent: “In high school, much like prison, your reputation means your life.”

Thomas meets a girl.  The girl is the product of very controlling parents.  You can use your imagination to fill in the blanks.

The issues with her, his rejection from his first choice for college, difficulties with his band and probably some genetic disease history combines inside Thomas with tragic results:

“Thomas is cursed with only remembering the lows, remembering the pain, the suffering, the embarrassment and never remembering the highs that often precede or follow the lows.”

This character is so authentic, his emotions and state of mind are so real that you want to hug him.  You want to tell him “it gets better, just wait and see”.

I can say that being in my 30s, but reading this book reminded me of what it is like to be 17.  Especially a teenager with depression.  I could literally look in my journals that I wrote when I was that age and it would sound very similar to this book.

My only criticisms are with the language and flow of the phrases used throughout the book.  This was not an easy read.  Sentence structure is very “clunky” at times, and I found myself having to reread passages several times to understand what actually happened.

I love it when authors make me reach for the dictionary, but if it is occurring every other paragraph, that takes the reader out of the narrative and interrupts the flow.

I also am thankful to the author for writing about the ultimate subject of this book.  It is a difficult subject to write about, but through his characters, you can see how it can occur in any family.

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