labeled-120Labeled
by Mark Salvatore (Paraguay 1989–91)
Create Space
$9.99 $.99 ebook
231 pages
2010

Reviewed by Sharon Dirlam (Russian Far East 1996-98)

HERE IS A COMING-OF-AGE STORY about a boy who doesn’t fit in anywhere and spends most of his time being stoned or drunk or otherwise in a less-than-lucid frame of mind. The rest of his time he spends trying to fit in, or rebelling against society, or berating himself for being inadequate and shy.

Vinnie knows he’s smart. He has lots of interesting thoughts wafting through his mind: quotes from worthwhile books, lessons from mythology, memorized comments by admirable people.

What he doesn’t have is any idea of what to do with the rest of his life or even with the moment at hand. The war in Vietnam is raging, high school sucks, the girl he likes rejects him. Life isn’t going well at all. People just don’t get it. Vinnie needs something — maybe a change of scenery.

Emboldened by the influence of two like-minded buddies, Pierce and Brian, he joins them in an unfunded plan to hitchhike across America.

There are an incredible number of fellow travelers who pick the boys up, take them some distance away, feed them, give them drugs or booze, invite them to various sorts of parties, occasionally even offering them sex, and once in awhile handing them a little money to tide them over for a day or two.

But, as Brian points out, “What about all the rides we haven’t had? We’ve waited for hours or longer. Only the poor or insane give us rides.”

There are fun descriptions of some of the people who befriend them: “the chick with the sugar cubes,”  “the white haired man in a three-piece pin-striped suit with shiny brown wing-tipped shoes, “Arlene, a well-toned, cross-country-legged freckled redhead with puffy green eyes,” and her boyfriend “Bobby, a blonde short-haired running-back-sort of guy with a triangular-shaped torso rippling with muscle.”

Vinnie and his pals make it almost all the way west before exhaustion and disillusionment set in.

Pierce calls it quits first, then finally Vinnie, too, has had enough (leaving Brian out there on the road to fend for himself). Vinnie calls home and gets bus money sent to him.

There are many adventures on the trip, but they seem anecdotal — sometimes offering temporary joy or fleeting relief (LSD trips, uppers, downers), but no little moments of enlightenment, no lessons learned. Dirty clothes, long hair, confused and muddled thoughts . . . Life goes on. And on. And on.

But at last, Vinnie enters a rehab program. So the story ends on a hopeful note.

For a narrative of adolescent despair and bravado, a passing parade of weird people and recitation of bizarre drug trips, Labeled works. It’s not The Catcher in the Rye, but there is something here. I think it’s an unmistakable honesty coupled with a struggle to understand what life is all about. No answers, but good questions.

Sharon Dirlam, journalist, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of Two Years Beyond Siberia, a nonfiction narrative about her Peace Corps service, and two stories published in Travelers’ Tales: A Woman’s World.

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