By: R.A. Riekki
Reviewed by: Edward Reynolds
Ghost Road Press, 2008
Auburn University English professor R. A. Riekki has wowed critics with his novel U.P., drawing speculative praise from one fellow writer who is convinced that Kurt Vonnegut would love the book if only Vonnegut were alive to read it. Vonnegut must have had a stronger stomach than I. According to the book’s cover summary, U.P. is a “complex tale of friendship and brutality.” Complex and brutal? That’s one heck of an understatement. Rather, Riekki slaps the reader in the face with a stark, disturbing portrayal of teen angst in the frozen northern peninsula of Michigan.
Be forewarned, dear reader: The language throughout the book is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart, nor is it for those who are rarely offended by such gratuitous profanity, for that matter. Riekki even lapses into writing fits of stream of consciousness. Charles Bukowski flirts with Jack Kerouac while Holden Caulfield looks on in amusement when not beating his head against (or urinating on) a brick wall. Descriptions of teenage life and the accompanying juvenile conversations are coarse, crude depictions of kids hanging on to their youth as they make the leap to adulthood in the bleakness that defines the Upper Peninsula. The book works on one level because of the discomforting intensity of its realism and will no doubt prompt memories of many readers’ personal reflections of adolescent behavior. Some will appreciate Riekki’s abrupt style of writing, while others will no doubt be disgusted.
The story is told from the perspective of four friends in their late teens—Anthony, J, Craig, and Hollow (He dates a Christian Scientist.)—wrestling a bleak reality in the despairing town of Ishperming. Happiness is fleeting and basically unattainable. The author is not shy about depicting the kids’ primitive interactions with all the vulgarity he can muster as the characters discover sex and wax moronically philosophical in the rawest manner imaginable.
Despite his crude language, the author has some hilarious, weird bits that work well. In one chapter, Hollow describes his gang’s mothers, a generation apparently trapped in the same Upper Peninsula hopelessness that has ensnared their children. Riekki writes, “Antony’s mother dislikes Craig’s mother because Craig’s mother slit Antony’s back bike tire when Antony wore muddy shoes in her house.” Hollow’s mother and J’s mother are friends, however. The two women attended Ishperming High together “until J’s mother got pregnant and dropped out so [Hollow’s] mother would skip classes to go to her house where they would eat oranges and smoke Kents because the two went well together.” When Riekki evokes such images, he charms, including the delightful description of one Ishperming kid who has “been out and in of jail more times than a Monopoly thimble.” June 2009
Edward Reynolds is a freelance writer in Birmingham.