Kristopher Reisz,
Tripping to Somewhere
(Simon/Pulse, 2006)

When Meek, the homeless guy who hangs around the 7-11, tells Gilly and Sam, the 17-year-old protagonists of Kristopher Reisz's young-adult novel, that the Witches' Carnival is in Atlanta, the girls determine to leave Birmingham in search of it. The Witches' Carnival is a group of almost immortals able to bend time and space -- their leader is the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe -- who are famous in myth and legend, although few people actually believe they are real.

Gilly and Sam believe they exist and, stealing $50,000 in dirty money from Gilly's crooked cop father, they take off. They're quite a pair. Both pride themselves on being as punk as they can be. Gilly's gay while Sam professes to be straight, although she mostly has sex with Gilly in the course of the novel. Both of them curse like mad, using the F word almost as punctuation, drink like crazy and do every drug they can get their hands on.

In Atlanta, they find the Carnival, party with the witches and do a ton of mescaline, but then the carnival moves on, leaving them behind. They follow them to London, committing a couple of felonies on the way. The two of them find the Carnival again, at a rave in the company of a big-time mescaline dealer.

It's at this time that serious question begin to rise: the Witches' Carnival has extraordinary powers. If they need passports and airline tickets, they simply write the word passport on a sheet of paper, airline ticket on another and everyone accepts their scribbles as the real thing. They must possess knowledge of the future because they turn up at every turning point in history. These dudes have power. So why is it that the best thing they can think of to do with these powers is to go to raves and do drugs?

As far as Sam and Gilly go, these girls' lives are as empty as my billfold, yet instead of moving to fill it up, they cannot think beyond escape fantasies. Why? Because Sam's stepfather has a pornographic magazine that she has found. She hasn't been abused but, for a girl who lives out on the edge, boozing, drugging and having sex, she sure gets repulsed easily. As for Gilly, well, she has a hard time in school for being gay.

What it seems to boil down to is that in this book's universe the highest value is being cool and the Witches' Carnival is the coolest thing on wheels, so Gilly and Sam want to be a part of it.

The book closes with Gilly having learned a couple of life lessons: that friendship is really important and that even though she's not physically attractive, she's beautiful inside. It leaves a reader thinking -- she committed a bunch of felonies, lost an eye and went to jail to learn after-school special lessons? Is that all the Witches' Carnival has to teach?

To my mind, what Reisz seems to be trying to do is ground a fantasy in a heavy dose of mundane reality. I'm afraid that grounding grounds his imagination as well. Tripping to Somewhere never quite soars the way the author wants it to.

by Michael Scott Cain
31 March 2007

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