Rash, by Pete Hautman
According to Pete Hautman’s young adult novel Rash, life in the future will be much more safe, and that, in turn, could be very dangerous. In the late 21st century Safer States of America, alcohol, littering, being overweight, even saying something mildly rude is illegal. Minor offenses result in sentencing to work for the country’s largest businesses: prison camps run by giant conglomerates like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola.
That spells trouble for young narrator Bo Marston. His hothead father and brothers are already on work crews. He lives with his mother and his wild, alcohol-sneaking (and very funny) grandfather. Bo longs for two things: to break the school record for the 100 meters (which is slow by our standards due to the squishy padded track and the running helmets and pads that student athletes are required to wear) and to gain the affection of Maddy Wilson. He has a rival for both of his goals, the smarmy, smirky Karlohs Mink.
The title Rash has two meanings, both of which bring Bo grief. First, his own rash behavior, which leads him to very minor acts of violence when baited by Karlohs or double dealt by Maddy. Second, a mysterious rash which starts to bloom on the skin of fellow students and teachers, a rash for which Bo is blamed. Bo is sentenced to make pizzas for McDonalds in a frozen northern wasteland where hungry polar bears roam just outside the perimeter fence. The sadistic warden, Hammer, indulges his love for the long illegal sport of football in the prison camp. Boys who make the team, the elite goldshirts, are allowed shorter work shifts, cushy jobs, and choices in food. But as Bo soon discovers, the sadistic Hammer has no concern whatsoever for the health of his players.
Bo has only two allies left in his quest to survive: his enormous roommate Rhino who has been sentenced to lose over 200 pounds, and Bork, a bizarre artificial intelligence that Bo created with rather incomplete information.
At first I was concerned that this would be nothing but an extended lawyer joke: while I agree that there are many superfluous lawsuits in America, I also think there are superfluous claims of superfluous lawsuits made by big corporations that don’t want any accountability. As it turns out though, Hautman is more subtle than that, he balances themes of self-control and recklessness well with those of overvigilance. Bo is a well-layered, likable lead who must struggle not only with external problems but with his own family tendencies: angry impulses and a willingness to blame others.
But I’m overanalyzing: The best reasons to read Rash are that it is funny and fast-paced and often very surprising.
Check the WRL catalog for Rash