Book review: No Alternative by William Dickerson

This is a book I reviewed for I read a book

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

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.

The Real World: Memoir

The first true events or memoir type book I read was The Diary of  a Young Girl by Anne Frank.  That book shook me to the core.  In school, you learn bits and pieces about WWII and the Holocaust.  I read about Anne Frank when I was in middle school, and I couldn’t believe what had happened to her.  Later in high school as a junior, part of a semester was devoted to Holocaust literature (Primo Levi, Eli Weisel) and culminated in a trip to the National Holocaust Museum in D.C..  That was an education.

I don’t have any particular type of memoir that I look for when I’m browsing, if it catches my eye, I’ll bite.  Assuming that the writer is being completely honest, they are putting themselves out there for examination, and you have to admire that.  Seldom are memoirs published about regular, everyday people who have everyday lives and are doing the right thing.  Most memoirs are written by people who have screwed up a bit, even if they aren’t in the public eye.  Accepting responsibility for those actions, in print, and in a location where everyone in your family, town, and the world can read is pretty ballsy.

Famous people memoirs:

Other than Anne Frank (who became famous as a result of her diary), I have read a few famous people memoirs.  What is the appeal?  I don’t particularly like the paparazzi and the TMZ crap, but my husband is a rock n roll encyclopedia.  He argues that he was born in the wrong decade.  I, on the other hand, came into this relationship without such an education.  I know the music if I hear it, but only recently have I begun to tell the difference between the wailing of Robert Plant and Steven Tyler.  Or the guitar expertise of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan (blasphemy coming from a Texan).  And it doesn’t help that Stevie covered Jimi.  And that Jimi often covered Bob Dylan.

Music is a very important part of my relationship with my husband, has always been since we were teenagers, and when the older gents started writing down their memories (while they are mostly intact), I decided reading them might help me out a little.

I have read Keith Richard’s  (and James Fox)”Life”.  It is well written and it does read like you are having a conversation with “Keef”.  I am not a huge Stones fan, I never really listened to them before seriously being with my husband, but I enjoyed reading this book.  I enjoyed reading how he came up with some of the signature sounds on particular songs, how he had the idea for lyrics and parts of songs.  I can’t do it (songwriting or instrument playing), so it is fascinating to me.  And the anecdotes about his legal issues, drug use, and affairs were amusing as well.  Keith owns up to his drug use, relationship issues, etc.  I admire that.

I have also read Steven Tyler’s “Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?”:  A Rock and Roll Memoir.  It is not credited with another person as a writer.  As much as I enjoyed the same things I enjoyed while reading about Keith Richards, it was like Steven was holding things back, or glossing over parts.  I knew considerably more about Aerosmith as they enjoyed a comeback during the 90s on MTV and I am a part of that generation.  I just expected a bit more…honesty?

Non-famous people (yet) memoirs:

Browsing through the Kindle books one day I came across this gem:  Dying for Triplicate: A True Story of Addiction, Survival and Recovery by Todd Zalkins.  It intrigued me because as a nurse, I come across addiction, particularly prescription pill addiction, all the time.  I once worked in a pain clinic and my daily duties included looking out for patients that were diverting or who were abusing their medication.  This memoir is about a young man who had severe addiction issues.  He starts in childhood and with his early memories of drugs and alcohol.  He describes how the addiction started: he had an injury, they gave him a powerful pain killer.  He got addicted.  He tried rehab several times, but again relapsed.  He describes exactly what happens when a person is addicted to these powerful substances, that are intended to be prescribed to cancer patients, but are being prescribed for back pain.  His descriptions of the behavior he engaged in, the methods he used and why he did it, how he recovered has actually helped me in my practice as a nurse to understand the addiction process.

In the same category of drug books, Closet Full of Coke: A Diary of a Teenage Drug Queen by Indra Sena, piqued my interest.  I also posted my thoughts about this book on my post about books that haunt me.  As I was a child through the entire 80s, I know nothing about the “War on Drugs”, other than they had a bunch of assemblies at school and we got stickers that said “Say NO to drugs”.  Right.  This memoir had me completely hooked.  Written as a type of journal or diary, it is sad and did make me cry a few times.  I could not believe that this girl, at her age, could do what she did and no one really cared.  At 15, she is basically abandoned by her parents and is forced to find her own income.  As she had been selling “uppers” at school for a few years already, she meets a dark and handsome man at her regular dealer’s house who promises her that he has a new product that can make her rich.  Cocaine.  And so begins a whirlwind of dealing, dancing, spending, trips to Florida, evading the police.  Totally had me mesmerized from start to finish.

Not a sad memoir! I picked this one up via  The Snitch, Houdini and Me: Humorous Tales of Death-defying Childhood Misadventures by Johnny Virgil.  I often look for books that will make me laugh or smile instead of war, zombies, and the apocalypse.  This was exactly what I was looking for.  Even though the author is much older, I did find similarities that I guess are universal when you grow up in suburbia.  I will come out right now and identify myself as a Snitch, or in my family, Squealer.  To this day, I don’t know how it happens, but I still Squeal.  My brother is Houdini and the author mixed into one.  I loved all of the stories provided by the author, especially the ones about snooping for Christmas presents, his death defying feats (that is my brother), and war on the teenagers.  They really could have killed someone.  I’m not sure if I would have said that last sentence if 1) I wasn’t a nurse and 2) I wasn’t a mother. Overall, extremely funny and made me nostalgic for my childhood.

I decided to exclude any historical memoirs because then this post would be much, much longer than it already has become.  Another post for another day.

And don’t get me started on the non-fiction.

I read all 🙂

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