Miles Halter isn’t sure what to expect when he arrives at his new boarding school in Alabama. All he knows for sure is that life at Culver Creek has to be better than the mundane subsistence he had in his Florida hometown. Memorizing famous last words can only take a young man so far in life, so Miles decides to head off into the great unknown–or, as Francois Rabelais put it right before he died, off to seek the Great Perhaps.
What Miles find is unexpected. In addition to earning a nickname (Pudge) and a place in this wacky school that’s now home, Miles finds Alaska Young. Possibly the hottest girl ever, Pudge knows that his life will never be mundane again. Not if Alaska has anything to say about it at least.
What Pudge doesn’t realize, what he can’t know, is that life after coming to Culver Creek and meeting Alaska Young will never be the same in Looking For Alaska (2005) by John Green.
Looking for Alaska was Green’s first novel, followed by An Abundance of Katherines (2006) and Paper Towns (2008). It was also the 2006 Printz Award Winner for excellence in young adult literature. (An Abundance of Katherines was selected as Printz Award honor book in 2007 making Green one of only two American authors to have received Printz Awards/Honors.)
Having read Green’s other books first, the writing style here was no surprise to me, but without that context the writing is really something different. The prose here is snappy. Pudge provides descriptions and anecdotes in his narration, but the story keeps moving along. The dialogue, in particular, has a lot of verve:
Finally I said, “Yeah, I went to public school. But I wasn’t hot shit there, Chip. I was regular shit.”
“Ha! That’s good. And don’t call me Chip. Call me the Colonel.”
I stifled a laugh. “The Colonel?”
“Yeah. The Colonel. And we’ll call you . . . hmm. Pudge.”
“Pudge,” the Colonel said. “Because you’re skinny. It’s called irony, Pudge. Heard of it? Now, let’s go get some cigarettes and start this year off right.”
Having spent a bit of time reading/watching John Green, it seems safe to say that part of the unique writing style comes from Greens unique sense of humor. But a lot of it also just comes from his being a talented writer (as those nods from the Printz committee suggest).
Looking For Alaska is broken into two parts: Before and After. That breakdown, and the chapters that begin with how many days before (and later after), lend this novel a strong undercurrent of suspense. Even though Pudge is enjoying life and Culver Creek, the writing remains taut with tension because it is so clear that something is going to change everything. While reading the book I had expected the story to go one way only to have it turn in a completely different direction After. The narrative was so tight that I was left completely floored.
As the quote above illustrates, this novel does have teens smoking. They also drink, talk about sex, and often run amok. A lot of young adult literature endeavors to show the “real” lives of teens by having them go to a lot of parties and drink and what not which often leaves me wondering what “real” teens the author knew. While Looking For Alaska features some of the same behaviors, it works better here. Because the characters are at a boarding school in general. Specifically because Culver Creek is set up as such an eerie and mysterious place that, in some ways, it becomes irrelevant how realistic the events are (and I mean maybe they are, I never went to a boarding school so I cannot accurately gauge).
Everything else aside, there is primarily one reason that I am very fond of this book. That reason is the Colonel. Within a few moments of his introduction it became apparent that the Colonel would be one of the best characters I ever encountered in a work of literature. Clever, acerbic, and even diabolical, he was like a character actor in a supporting role who quietly and indisputably steals the entire show.
Possible Pairings: Paper Towns by John Green, The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Fracture by Megan Miranda, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider