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The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek
by Rhett McLaughlin & Link Neal with Lance Rubin
Crown, 26.00, 336pp
Published: October 2019

I've read some deep books lately and some lyrical ones too. This is neither of those things, but it's as much fun as pretty much anything else I've read in years. It's a quick and easy read, with a very smooth tone, seemingly far shorter than its three hundred and some pages. I devoured it in one go and I don't think I ever really doubted that I would.

The library classification codes list it variously as humour, adventure and science fiction, but it's really a horror story for kids. The leads are two boys and a girl, best friends about to start high school and good kids too, but they live in a small southern town where they're seen as troublemakers, for no better reason than they show character. Anything outside the norm is seen with suspicion and the norm is pretty scary.

I loved the little touches that define Bleak Creek and help explain why the reformatory, the Whitewood School, is so popular. There are two churches in town, inevitably the First and the Second Baptist Church, aren't different in any apparent way but they despise each other. Pork barbecue is second to God here in a town where people regret Dolly Parton going to Hollywood. One lecture at Whitewood starts with the C&C in C&C Music Factory standing for crack and cocaine.

Alicia Boykins clearly never had a chance, not because she pantsed a bunch of mannequins in a local store or because she listens to Nirvana, the given reasons why she's sent to Whitewood. Sure, the catalyst was her accidentally bumping principal Wayne Whitewood onto the full pig he's cooking in town for a church fundraiser, burning his hands. The real reason is that she's mixed race. I do admire the restraint of the authors in not mentioning that at all for the longest time and never bringing it back up once they do. Racism here is so inherent that it has no need to be explained. It just is.

Anyway Alicia is sent to Whitewood for her actions, leaving her two friends Rex McClendon and Leif Nelson struggling to figure out what to do about it. Of course, they're fictional takes on the authors' younger selves, living in a fictional take on their home town of Buies Creek, NC. It's easy to imagine this novel evolving from stories they conjured up as kids, flavoured by the experience of adulthood and the humour that they're known for; they host an internet talk show called Good Mythical Morning.

The downsides here are in how simplistic everything is. Whitewood School is exactly the sort of thing that parents hold over their misbehaving kids and, with Alicia sent there, revelations start to show up. Rex and Leif meet Ben, who has escaped from Whitewood, perhaps with his life. Three kids died there under mysterious circumstances over the past decade, news reports claiming a tragic accident in each case. Alicia promptly becomes a fourth.

Enter Janine Blitstein, local girl back from film school at NYU to escape a breakup by shooting a documentary on the prevalence in Bleak Creek of kidney stones. Of course she connects with Rex and Leif. Of course, her unnaturally quiet cousin Donna spent time at Whitewood. Of course there's something more than education going on at the reform school. You can pretty much write the rest of this novel in your head, right down to the plot conveniences, deus ex machinae and skimped over research. The background eventually comes in a single flashback chapter. Nothing here is surprising.

Then again, if McLaughlin and Neal had written the great American novel, the author credit on the title page wouldn't have included "with Lance Rubin", a third hand apparently needed to make this book happen. I have no idea if he simply wrote their story down or he finessed it into something that could be published, but it does mean that our authors aren't entirely that.

I do expect that the humour here comes from them, based on their experience outside of writing, and it's the biggest reason to read this book. It might be light reading, best thrown at a YA audience, but it's massively engaging. I surprised myself by caring about these characters, not because they're any level of deep but because our leads are natural and likeable people crafted  with gentle but appropriate humour. They're quirky individuals in a cookie cutter town and I wanted them not just to beat the system but to burn it to the ground. It's an odd book to find a revolution in.

I've been ill this week and this was perfect medicine. It's simple, straight to the point good vs. evil stuff. I liked it a lot. I have no pretensions as to its quality but I liked it anyway. Now I want to read the sequel that, as far as I'm aware, doesn't exist and may never. It should. Maybe someone will turn this into a TV show. After all, it's just as fun, just as obvious and a lot more grounded than Stranger Things, but done in much the same vein. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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