This dark comedy adventure by Libba Bray is published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, a division of Random House, Inc., and written for kids ages 14 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Caution: The following review includes references to graphic/offensive content.
When diagnosed with the human form of mad cow disease, Cameron is a 16-year-old with a dysfunctional family, a "whatever" attitude and a penchant for smoking pot. Facing death, Cameron takes an epic journey that allows him, for the first time, to feel something besides apathy toward his own life and other people.
Cameron's journey begins several weeks after his diagnosis, when a punk-rock angel named Dulcie visits him at the hospital. She tells him about a scientist named Dr. X who traveled through time and space, inadvertently bringing back dark energy that is now endangering the planet and Cameron's life. Dulcie says Cameron must go on a quest to find Dr. X. It's the only way he can get a cure for himself and save the world. She insists that he take his hospital roommate, Gonzo, with him. Gonzo is a hypochondriac dwarf who Cameron recently met in the stoner bathroom at school. Dulcie offers little direction concerning how to find Dr. X., except to say that nothing is random and everything is connected. She says she'll appear periodically to help, but that Cameron should seek clues in tabloids, billboards and the like.
Once Cameron and Gonzo escape from the hospital, they follow "signs" to New Orleans. A drag queen helps them find a jazz legend named Junior Webster. Junior offers advice just before he's killed by the dark energy (which manifests itself as fire gods and their leader, the Wizard of Reckoning).
Cameron and Gonzo escape, and members of a happiness cult known as the Church of Everlasting Satisfaction and Snack-‘N'-Bowl (CESSNAB) take them in. Cameron nearly decides to stay at CESSNAB when he finds himself on the wrong side of a raid on the compound. CESSNAB erupts into chaos as members begin to think independently, and Cameron and Gonzo make their exit.
Cameron then attends a keg party with strangers. In the yard, he meets a live garden gnome named Balder who vows to assist him on his quest. After another near miss with the fire gods, Cameron, Gonzo and Balder buy a crummy used car. They take a detour through Hope, Ga., where Cameron sees Dulcie and places a wish ("to live") on a wishing tree. They move on and stay with some scientists who study time-travel theories. The scientists try unsuccessfully to help Cameron find Dr. X.
En route to Daytona Beach, Fla., Cameron picks up three hitchhiking college guys and parties with them. After Cameron and Gonzo drop off their passengers, they realize the guys kidnapped Balder. They hunt for the yard gnome at the Party House, a Spring Break hot spot complete with TV crews filming stunt and reality shows. Cameron loses his virginity to a girl from his hometown before having sex with Dulcie. Gonzo falls for a guy named Drew, and they recover Balder by agreeing to participate in a couple of reality shows. A famous band that literally vanished years earlier reappears at the Party House. They say they've traveled through time and space. They use their music to help Cameron close Dr. X's wormhole and save the planet. The dark energy traps Dulcie in a snow globe, and Cameron tries to save her.
Cameron's hallucinations become stranger and harder to follow, and readers discover the journey has only taken place in his mind as he's careening into madness. Cameron realizes that the Wizard of Reckoning, who has been chasing him, is really him. He has been his own worst enemy. When Cameron dies, he finds himself happy in some unexplained location with Dulcie.
Chet, an openly Christian character, hoped to play college football until an injury sidelined him. He frequently speaks at churches and Kiwanis clubs about how God had other plans for him. Chet has a reputation for using his injury to get sympathy and sex from cheerleaders. He invites Cameron's sister, Jenna, to attend a "ski mission trip" with his youth group. He says his pastor doesn't think kids should read books like Don Quixote because it makes them question things and get weird. He mentions one kid whose parents "straightened him out" by sending him to a church with a school and a restaurant where you never have to go outside and be touched by negative influences. Cameron scoffs when Jenna says Chet's youth group prays and reads Scripture for Cameron every morning. Cameron wonders if Chet envies him because, with his illness, Cameron surpassed the jock on the "God-will-test-you-because-He-loves-you" scale. Chet visits Cameron in the hospital and tries to lead him to Christ. He says no one ever really dies if Jesus is his Lord and Savior. Cameron argues that God is a "sadistic creep." He says Jesus should be asking his forgiveness for letting him die so young without even having sex. He asks Chet to consider that maybe there really is no divine plan, and humans are on their own.
Cameron ponders various religious beliefs and their take about what happens at death. He says maybe Christians are right, that there is some big guy with a white robe and a devil with a pitchfork. Maybe people will end up either playing a harp or burning in hell, either of which would be "sucktastic." After Cameron gets sick, he thinks he sees his father praying, though his dad is a scientist who doesn't believe in religion. A tabloid quote about the world ending is attributed to the Rev. Iggy Norant. Cameron's nurse says she doesn't know why God takes the good or the young or why people suffer. She doesn't understand why He took her daughter, who died of cancer at age 5.
Cameron's parents spend little time with him, mostly communicating through notes or phone messages. Cameron's mom teaches English Lit at a community college. Cameron says she should be teaching somewhere better, but she can never finish anything, including her Ph.D. Cameron believes his father (also a teacher) is having an affair with his young assistant. He says he sees a lot of his dad's back because his father is always turning away from him in anger or frustration. Cameron's parents do remain by his side and demonstrate concern for him during his hospital stay.
Other Belief Systems
Cameron says apathy is his religion. He works part-time at Buddha Burger, which allegedly sells healthy, environmentally friendly food (though Cameron seems skeptical). Buddha Burger is decorated with Zen fountains and gives out Buddha cow toys to children. A scientist whose video Cameron watches online questions whether God exists, and if so, whether He is "unconcerned or just really, really, really busy." The scientist also wonders why people must die when everything within them yearns to live. Cameron ponders various world religions and their ideas about death, taking jabs at Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu beliefs. Dulcie says everything is connected, nothing is random and destiny isn't fixed.
She says people's fates are tied together, though Cameron isn't sure there's such a thing as fate. Cameron says maybe there's a heaven where they weigh everything a person has done on big karma scales. When Cameron hears an old man coughing in a hospital room near his, he prays, "God, if You exist, can You take him instead of me?" Dr. T. and Dr. M., the time travel scientists, say it's narcissistic to assume our world is the only one. Balder was a Norse god in another time. He shares different snippets of Norse mythology and says, "Thank the gods." He uses stones, called runes, for protection and divination, and he invokes a prayer of protection for himself, Cameron and Gonzo on their journey.
CESSNAB members believe the universe wants them to be happy, so they've rigged the bowling games in their compound to let them win every time. They believe in instant gratification and suggest that buying things will make them happy. They also believe fruit smoothies will make them happy, though they only make vanilla because they want everyone to have the same experience (which cuts down on things like envy, competitiveness and regret). They have church every day, where they sing songs about perfection and happiness, think "I-am-special" thoughts and bowl perfect games. Their library only carries copies of one book (called Don't Hurt Your Happiness) because all other books have been deemed too "non-positive." The girl working in the library (who is actually planning a raid against CESSNAB) suggests to Cameron that maybe so-called negative feelings are useful and that human beings "can't evolve without the pain." The girl pulls Cameron into a room with her as the raid begins, and CESSNAB members think he is one of the instigators. CESSNAB members try to give Cameron a chance at redemption, telling him that all he has to do to be forgiven is bowl.
The word s--- and the f-word appear in abundance, along with numerous variations of a--, suck, b--ch, WTF, p-ss, b--tard, balls (in the anatomical sense), d--n, crap, butt, screw, retard, skank, turd and heck. The Lord's name is taken in vain, and several Spanish profanities appear as well. Cameron says his dad would "cream himself" if Cameron played sports. A few people flip each other off. A CESSNAB leader slams the butt of a gun down on Cameron's head and says there must be "happiness by any means necessary."
Cameron talks about how he enjoys masturbation. He often mentions he is getting an erection when he sees various girls and uses words such as penis and hard-on. He reads a porn magazine in a convenience store, and he imagines girls weeping over his coffin, wishing they'd claimed his virginity while he was alive. When the girl at the CESSNAB library kisses him, he thinks she's going to "pop his cherry" (i.e. take his virginity). At a party Cameron attends, people play strip poker and go in the back rooms to hook up.
In a graphic sex scene, Cameron loses his virginity to a cheerleader from his school. Shortly afterward, he tells Dulcie he feels a little empty and thought it would be different. Then she exposes her bare body, and the reader is led to believe that she, too, has sex with Cameron.
A drag queen named Miss Demeanor helps Cameron and Gonzo in New Orleans. Gonzo meets his boyfriend Drew while partying in Florida. They kiss several times and snuggle. One of Cameron's female stoner friends is interested in hooking up with Cameron's female nurse.
Publishers Weekly Best Children's Book of the Year, 2009; Booklist Books for Youth Editors' Choice, 2010; ALA Best Books for Young Adults, 2010; and others.
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