Rash by Pete Hautman is a wry look at a possible 2070s United States, now called the USSA (United Safer States of America? United Socialist States of America?). In this dystopian society, Americans (as well as people in most other countries) have traded freedom and independence for safety. It's no longer legal to play football, or to run without wearing extensive padding a helmet. Alcohol, cigarettes, temper tantrums, hunting, large dogs - all illegal. Three quarters of people over the age of ten are on the drug Levulor, which slows their reflexes, and helps them to keep their tempers in check.
Levulor apparently doesn't work all that well, though, because twenty-four percent of adults are in prison. The government uses prison labor to do the jobs that other people don't want to do, like cleaning septic systems, working on roads, and making frozen food products. People are carted off for all sorts of minor infractions (including "self-mutilation", which can include weighing too much), because their labor is needed in the work camps.
Rash is the story of sixteen-year-old Bo, who lives with his ineffectual mother and his nostalgic Gramps, while his father and older brother are off in prison. Sandbagged by a rival, Bo is unfairly blamed for a mysterious rash that spreads through his school. Pushed to the breaking point, he lashes out against his rival, and is sentenced to three years of labor in a prison camp up in the (former) Canadian tundra. The workers in this camp spend 18 hours a day, seven days a week, making pizzas. The camp actually reminded me a lot of the youth offender camp in Holes, but set in a much colder climate.
Taken out of the protective cushion of society, Bo encounters things he's never seen before. Deliberate violence and cruelty. Football. Polar bears. And, surprisingly, the feeling of being part of a team. Meanwhile, an artificial intelligence agent that Bo created before he left evolves into a sentient being called Bork. Bork starts communicating with Bo, and works to rescue him from a land of endless pizza and football.
I liked double-entendre of "rash" in the book. Bo is wrongly accused of creating a rash. His real crime is his own rash behavior, in a society where being rash is just about the worst thing a person can be. I also enjoyed the character of Gramps, constantly reminiscing about his youth (when people could actually own guns, and buy beer in restaurants, and wear sneakers). Bork is also a lot of fun - Hautman does a nice job of capturing his gradual shift from computer to independent thinker, and his development of a sense of humor.
Overall, I found Rash to be a fast read, one that grabbed my attention from the first page, and didn't let go until I finished. Of course, I am partial to dystopian novels. In addition to reminding me of Holes, Rash evoked a more benign 1984. What's disturbing about this book is that our society is right now on a slippery slope, trading off freedom for safety. We face these questions every day. Hautman takes a look at how sterile and monotonous our society could become, if this balance slips too far. He does this while simultaneously giving us a fast-moving plot with teen-friendly trappings (hand-held computers, artificial intelligence, pizza, football, and teen male posturing). All in all, I found it to be a masterful accomplishment from this National Book Award winning author (for Godless).
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.