Blood Sugar–Daniel Kraus offers up a strange, dark tale set at Halloween

Review by C.J. Bunce

As you look at that great Paul Mann cover art for Blood Sugar, would you ever guess the following describes what is inside?  A modern-day look at the struggles of a teenager in a broken home and broken society in the vein of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (or any of her early books, for that matter).  It has the gritty street life from Attack the Block, Do the Right Thing, or Car Wash, the “being different” of Lucas (the film with Corey Haim) and the coming of age confusion and angst of Stephen King’s Stand By Me aka The Body and issues kids worry about like in Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  What?

In one way Blood Sugar is the worst written novel you’ll ever read.  And in another way, it’s the kind of story that should already be optioned to become an independent film.  That “bad writing” is tricky, because the story is told in an experimental manner through the voice of a young teenager named Jody, a boy whose life is a mess and whose street sense surpasses any “book learning” he passed up in his life so far.  Author Daniel Kraus, through the voice of Jody, speaks in rambling sentences, stream of conscience thoughts, and with little punctuation and grammar (no apostrophes, etc.).  It’s distracting at first to the point a reader may just walk away, but it doesn’t take too long to realize Kraus’s characters are real if not disturbingly so.  Yes, they are a mess, but this book might be worthwhile in the hands of the right kid.  Kraus is a screenplay writer, known for his script to The Shape of Water and his young adult works.  It no doubt takes some commitment to write an entire story in this strange manner.  His novel reads like a screenplay, and it’s far more a young adult novel than anything you’ve read before in the Hard Case Crime series.  It’s not a fun read–it’s dark, and desperate, and dire–the kids have no good path ahead, and their plight is like that of the doomed kids in Bless the Beasts and Children.  But it’s one heckuva thought-provoking drama.

Jody is a funny, dumb, impressionable kid.  He hasn’t read much but he knows The Lord of the Rings movies backward and forward.  He rarely swears, instead using goofy swapped words for profanity, which drops the serious and sometimes violent nature of the content into something that should pass for a PG-13 rating, something like I would have read in eighth grade.  This is a dark story of drugs and living in a rat-infested, inner-city project, of mental health issues, bad parenting, of youth gone amok, all in that same theme–but in an updated 21st century way–as Rebel Without a Cause, or any of the books referenced above.  And everything in Jody’s life hits a turning point on Halloween.  This is not your typical crime novel.

Jody has a mother who is infirm and mostly bedridden.  He also has a foster sister his mother brings in solely for the government support payments.  His sister is mute, and has some undiagnosed mental condition where she thinks she is speaking to insects.  Jody has a girlfriend name Dag (who lives in the “good” housing development but she’s pre-occupied with a sister who has been sent away for her own issues).  And Jody has a pushing 30-years-old adult friend named Robbie, who years ago committed an act of violence resulting from sexual abuse against him by a coach in high school.  Concussions from high school football have had their toll on Robbie and his parents left him behind to fend for himself.  At the end of his rope, Robbie plans to poison the neighborhood kids with his street drugs and plans other misdeeds for when they trick-or-treat at his house for Halloween, to get back at their parents, because he’s angry at all adults, and the community that made him the way he is.

In addition to the crimes done to Robbie, the focal crime of the story is that stuff of Halloween lore, and Jody and Dag don’t seem to believe Robbie is really going to go through with his threat.  But Halloween poisonings are ultimately just the background for a life of inner-city death, disease, infestation, and personal horrors over any kind of fun kids are supposed to have at Halloween.  The kids, even Jody’s well-to-do so-called girlfriend, each snap for their own reasons and are completely empty and lacking in thought or consequences by the novel’s climax.  You can just hear Jim Morrison singing, “This is the End,” as the last chapter looms ahead.  Will they follow through with their plan?  The story unfortunately wraps a bit too abruptly.

Reactions to Blood Sugar will be a bit like everyone not knowing whether or not to recommend the new Joaquin Phoenix Joker movie, saying “it’s good, but sooo dark.”  That description definitely applies here.  But if Blood Sugar ever gets adapted to film it’s going to be likely the actor that gets cast as Robbie will have a role of a lifetime.  Note–despite its marketing this novel really reads nothing like A Clockwork Orange.  The story has little commonality other than the speaking in slang concept, and the violence is not flagrantly paraded for humor sake or for shock value alone here.

More of a story that happens to take place at Halloween than a Halloween story you’re likely to recommend reading year after year, but a solid piece of writing, Daniel Kraus′s new novel Blood Sugar is just out, in paperback from Hard Case Crime, available in time for Halloween here at Amazon.

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