________________ CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 26. . . .March 11, 2011


Random: If You Think Life Makes Sense, Do Not Read This Book.

Lesley Choyce.
Markham, ON: Red Deer Press/Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2010.
170 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 978-0-88995-443-4.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.

**** /4



Joseph here. Joe. Sometimes Joey. This is me, talking into a digital recorder. It would shock the hell out of me if anyone ever listens to this. But it could happen. I guess anything can happen. So I will assume the remove possibility that someday I will have an audience.

But that won't change anything. I will record whatever goes through my head and talk about my life, past and present. If you want to spend your time following me, then you're along for the ride. But I promise you, this is not going anywhere. The world does not make sense. Never has, never will. I know from experience that we live through a random sequence of events and then we die.

Like my parents did my biological parents. I was twelve at the time. My parents went to the movies. I stayed home because I had homework and I thought homework was important. The twelve-year-old me did. I was one of them. I thought things had meaning. If you worked hard, you would be rewarded. Etc. Etc.


Four years after the death of his parents—Henry and Celia (affectionately called "Seal" by Henry) Campbell—16-year-old Joe (sometimes Joey or Joseph) is still trying to make sense of it all. What random collection of circumstances led to the brake lights failing in his parents' Ford, and the sudden appearance of a kid on a bicycle who darted into their path, and the garbage truck following way too closely, all of which led to the "full-impact rear-ender," the freak accident which orphaned Joe? Random is the contents of Joe Campbell's digital diary, a non-linear re-telling of the events of his life, past and present, (with very occasional musings about the future). And despite protestations to the contrary, Joe really is looking for meaning, for patterns of causality, for answers to the many questions he has about himself, his past and his present.

      With no family really wanting to take him, until a sizable insurance settlement sweetens the deal, and then, unwilling to live with seriously dysfunctional relatives, Joe finds a solution. After writing a letter to the lawyer managing his bio-parents' estate, and "acing" an interview designed to assess his situation, Joe is officially an orphan, available for adoption. His adoptive parents, Will and Beth MacDonald, are remarkable people, willing to take the challenge of adopting a 12-year-old "who is probably scarred for life and if he turns out the slightest bit normal, we will all be shocked." Joe admires their bravery, their patience with him, and their inherent decency as human beings even though he admits that he wants his "bio-parents" back. And truly, reading a young adult novel in which the parental figures are ordinary folks who are nice (without being saints) is refreshing.

      High school is high school: beautiful, smart and popular girls (Rachelle Drummond) are cruel vixens who manage to evade consequences, guys who are preppy and charming to adults (Oliver Julian) are mean-spirited bullies. It's illogical that young people use these gifts to such unworthy ends, but Joe, his "not-girlfriend" Gloria, and his buddy, Dean are routinely picked upon by Rachelle, Oliver, and their supporters. Yes—sounds like high school, in all of its random cruelty, as observed for years by a now-retired high school teacher-librarian.

      Gloria Westerbend is not Joe's girlfriend (although she definitely has possibilities). She "keeps her beauty hidden," apparently unconcerned about her appearance, and by Joe's assessment, probably the smartest girl in the school. She really is intelligent, and not just in the get-100%-on-a-test way; she is also clinically depressed, and her parents' incipient marriage break-up isn't helping. Then, there's Dean. Dean is just plain weird, but in a harmless way he's not the kind who will load a rifle and hold a school hostage. Still, Joe wonders "if Dean will have a chance to visit Earth in his lifetime. [This is after Dean passes Joe a note in which he wonders if they will visit Mars in their lifetime.] Dean perhaps was given a tad too much Ritalin when he was growing up." After he started on medication, Dean stopped doing mildly crazy things like driving his bike straight into a lake on purpose, shooting peas out of his nose during meals, and giving teachers a hard time in school. Their collective outsider status virtually guarantees that these three will be friends, and, as Joe tries to remember more details about his parents and his early life with them (and on many levels, emotionally, it was a pretty content existence), they provide support for him and he for them.

      Joe frequently claims that he believes that "the world did not make any sense... [Its randomness] eased the burden of living." Nevertheless, he, Gloria, and Dean, keep trying to make sense of things: why popularity in a high school is inversely proportional to human decency, why adults (such as Gloria's parents) can't solve their problems, why classmates resort to cyber-bullying posts in order to humiliate Dean. (Fortunately, there is at least one safe place for Dean in their high school. Yes: the school's library, the ER of the walking emotionally-wounded, supervised by Ms. Gray, the kindly librarian who "understood Dean. She could see he was hurting."

      Over time, things get more complicated for two of the trio: Gloria attempts suicide and is hospitalized, and Dean becomes increasingly concerned about his sexual identity (his confusion exacerbated by Oliver's cyber-post calling Dean "a faggot"). But for Joe, there's a breakthrough. It begins in one of his mini-classes in ancient Greek philosophy (Joe is no intellectual lightweight, despite his dismissal of 87% of what goes on in school), and gains force when he pulls out his dad's old Stratocaster and plays a few chords. Then, just for random interest, Joe Googles his name and finds that there are two other famous "Joseph Campbell"s: along with his brother, one Joseph Campbell founds the eponymous soup company whose products have red and white labels. The other Joseph Campbell is the academic who wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Joe remembers seeing a book with that title, and, as a memory takes shape, he finds the book in a storage closet in the basement of his now-parents' house. Bio-Dad Henry gave the book to Joe's mother, Celia. Joe, now Joseph Campbell, is on a quest, and perhaps he will find that life is not so random after all.

      Random is an incredible book. Its non-linearity mirrors the way that memory works: you hear a song, see someone who reminds you of someone else, and suddenly, you are catapulted back to a past event. As for the present, Joe's observations about high school life are wry, witty, and absolutely accurate. With Joseph Campbell, Lesley Choyce offers readers a young male character who is complex, intelligent, and (dare I say it,) sensitive. But there is more to this book than its being yet another story of "teen angst." It's a story about genuine friendship, about making sense out of nonsense, and about coming to terms with the randomness of it all.

      Random is a "must-buy" book for high school libraries, and an absolute "must-read" for those young male readers out there who are "intelligent, sensitive, well-read" (and Lesley Choyce has written other books with similar protagonists). If these young men are not well-read, this may start them on the road! Oh, sure the book contains some random profanities, but they're comparatively mild (no f-bombs) and they fit the context of 16-year-old high school boy-speak.

      Random—make it a deliberate acquisition!

Highly Recommended.

Joanne Peters is a retired teacher-librarian who lives in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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