Sunday, February 17, 2019

"Kiss Your Stupid Lexus Good-bye!": Work-related Death and a Villainous Lawyer in a Young Adult Novel

            If I were any kind of step-son, I’d be taking my step-mother shopping at Tysons Corners.  But no, we were at our regular visit to the Route 1 Dollar Tree (South Alexandria, VA), when, for the third time, I came across that shopworn copy of the Young Adult novel, My Chemical Mountain (Ember/Random House 2013), by Corina Vacco.  The squib on the back cover refers to a work-related death, so I made the investment and purchased it.  And indeed, the book delivers on that unfortunate event, a catastrophe which serves as the backdrop of the story.  But, as it turns out, there’s another pervasive theme: the villainy of an evil company lawyer who tools around in a silver Lexus. 

        The story is set in fictional Poxton, NY, a town on Lake Erie, southwest of Buffalo.  The “chemical mountain” of the title is a nickname for the large pile of garbage which rises up from the post-industrial wasteland (demolished factories and landfills) which abuts Poxton and dominates its existence. 

        Our hero, Jason, 14 years old, is haunted by the work-related death, a year before, of his father.  Dad, who labored for “Mareno Chem,” was trying to expose the company for illegally manufacturing Phenzorbiflux, an illegal chemical product.  The precise manner of death remains a mystery, and only mentioned in the book’s first sentence: “I think about the seventeen tons of Phenzorbiflux that went missing the night Dad died.  Green, steamy chemical sludge.  Coveralls in a puddle of liquefied human skin.  The horrible phone call that woke us in the night.  I am hungry for revenge.” 

        And retribution is merited, as the family, in the wake of the death, is treated shabbily.  The Mareno Chem lawyer Dan Benecke has, in the wake of the death, pressured Mom into signing a stack of legal papers.  Like the death, however, whatever Mom has signed away and receives in return (a lump sum?) remains a mystery.  There’s no mention of workers’ compensation, and certainly no reference to a Section 32 settlement.  The family is, in any event, impoverished, Mom breaks down, gains weight, and must herself resort to dangerous factory work.

        Of course, the most constructive retributive response would be for Jason and his Mom to retain their own Lexus-driving attorney, seek workers’ compensation, and pursue other legal remedies. 

        Instead, Jason and his friends Charlie (jock) and Cornpup (nerd), embark on a series of adventures intended to expose Mareno Chem’s illegal polluting and, alarmingly, to gain personal retribution against Benecke.  In one scene, the three break into the company’s headquarters and ransack the lawyer’s office: “Anger is ripping through me again,” Jason narrates.  “I smash the picture frames on Dan Benecke’s desk.  I tear up his photographs.  I use a silver letter opener to slash his leather chair.  I scribble MONSTER in black ink all over his desk calendar.”  In a subsequent encounter, when the three are caught trespassing, Jason slashes Benecke in the face with a ninja “Chinse Star.”  In a constructive effort, the boys do attend a public hearing at which the company’s activities are investigated, and Cornpup even testifies about how the toxins in the local environment have disfigured him. 

        In the end, however, violence spells the end for Benecke and the monstrous company for which he labors.  In this regard, just as Jason’s final effort to expose the company commences, Charlie goes rogue and, in a surreal scene, dynamites the Marino Chem plant, perishing during the effort.  This disaster, however, reveals the company’s wrongdoing once and for all, so Charlie’s martyrdom is vindicated.     

        A work-related death thus animates the whole story.  And, indeed, concern about injury from industrial labor pervades the book.  Cornpup’s disabled grandfather was a steelworker at the now-closed Bethlehem Steel plant who lost two fingers saving another man.  Mom must labor in a dangerous factory.  Indeed, her co-worker sustains a serious injury which causes Mom to reform her life and vow to eat more healthily: 

        Mom closes her eyes.  “There was a bad accident at the plant.  A woman – my friend – was injured.  She’s in the hospital.” ….

       Mom takes another bite of green leaves.  Strange.  Very strange.  “Fat people are more likely to have a work-related accident.  Did you know that?”, she says to me.

        “No,” I whisper.  I didn’t know that at all.

        She starts to cry.  “It was horrible.  She got caught in a machine.  Skinny people can slip out of things.  Skinny people almost never get caught in machines.”

         I get it.  When you’re huge, you’re a huge target.  It’s easier to shoot a bear than a sparrow.  But Jeannie didn’t die or anything, so I don’t understand what the big deal is.   

         A blurb on the back cover maintains that My Chemical Mountain is “reminiscent of the Outsiders,” another ostracized-teen adventure story.  However, other stories made famous by film came to my mind.  For a trio of adventurers, Stand By Me (Will Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O’Connell).  For a rogue who goes nuclear, Taps (Tom Cruise).  And, for the slashing-with-Ninja weapon episode, Enter the Dragon (Bruce Lee).  Indeed, when Jason slashes Benecke, the latter simply strokes his wound philosophically and, like the evil drug lord Han, addresses the teens with a menacing lecture. I was ready for the Fight in the Hall of Mirrors. 

        Like Han, however, Benecke gets it in the end.  After the final, flaming end of Mareno Chem, he’s fully exposed: 

         Dan Benecke was arrested, charged with felonies.  I wish I could’ve been there to see it.  I would’ve stood in front of his mansion and shouted, Hope they put you away forever, asshole!  No more fancy vacations!  And you can kiss your stupid Lexus goodbye!

        The implausible scenarios and dialogue of My Chemical Mountain detract from a good story, one with characters with whom the reader gains empathy.  I enjoyed, in any event, reading it!  Still, if I had a teen I don’t think I would want him or her to be thinking that violence is the answer to adversity, as it was for both Jason and Charlie. 

        For a video trailer:

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