I finished reading Sam Munson’s ‘The November Criminals’ two days ago and, despite having finished three more books and started two more since then, it is still on my mind. It isn’t the plot (essentially, teen drug dealer develops weird obsession with murder of classmate and has un-girlfriend problems) that has stayed with me; rather, I keep thinking about the characters in a kind of ‘where are they now?’ sort of way, which is highly illogical given that I spend my professional life lecturing my students on characters being fictional constructs and not actual people with lives beyond the text.
But I can’t help considering Addison, the narrator and afore-mentioned small-time dealer, and why he does the things he does during ‘The November Criminals.’ While reading, I was frustrated that there didn’t seem to be any reason for his sudden immersion in the case of Kevin, someone Addison was only vaguely aware of at school, and his shooting before the novel begins. The more I think about it, however, the more I realise this is exactly the point; that there isn’t really a good reason for it because sometimes there just isn’t a reason for something. In some ways, Addison reminded me of Greg, the narrator of my recent favourite, ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl;’ in both cases, the narrator complains frequently about telling the story but has a specific purpose for doing so, despite being on the periphery of the events depicted. Addison is a mess of contradictions in the way that real teenagers are; for example, he is a stoner but incredibly gifted in the study of Latin and obsessed with ‘The Aeniad.’ Throughout, even as crazy things happen around him, Addison is keen to protest his own lack of noteworthy qualities, telling the reader, “I have no personality to speak of.” It is his very lack of quirks that makes him an engaging character, even as his actions become increasingly ridiculous and destructive.
Addison’s girlfriend, Digger, is another brilliantly-realised character. Their relationship is referred to as an “agreement,” by which they are supposed to be ‘friends with benefits,’ to use a phrase I really hate. But Addison’s frequent allusions to how amazing Digger is belie his attempts at nonchalance, and that is quite touching. He is right; Digger is a superb creation, although animal activists may disagree. Addison’s father is another character who demands further consideration; he seems to exist on the periphery (for example, he is unaware that his son is making thousands of dollars selling pot) but the subtext of Addison’s mother and her tragic death give the reader reason to consider the roots of his behaviour.
In terms of plot, ‘The November Criminals’ follows a pattern established by ‘stoner movies,’ with the protagonists’ self-imposed distance from reality leading them into madcap and dangerous situations, for which they are in no way prepared; attracting the attention of police officers and brick-wielding lunatics, to name but two. It falls somewhere in between ‘Pineapple Express’ and ‘The Wire’ in its approach to drugs and crime, with the D.C. dialect reminding me of all the times watching the latter when I didn’t understand what anyone was saying. In the case of ‘The November Criminals,’ this added to the portrayal of the location, which interested me as I can’t think of any other books I’ve read which were set in the U.S.’ capital city but didn’t involve politics. Munson includes some details which transcend the madness of the story, like “after the snow, when it comes, which is not always till late December or January – the snow itself is always minor, a greyish dusting. Fragile. It never achieves that white darkness quality. The thwarted desire for which, I think, makes children so high-strung here in the winter months.” I could have a field day with that kind of writing in my A-level lessons.
I’d like to read ‘The November Criminals’ again at some point when I am not dying under the weight of all the books I need to read; I’d like to take the time to look again at Munson’s eloquent and entertaining style and the ways in which it makes Addison an engaging figure. The swearing and content may make me wary of recommending this to teens with a sensitive disposition, but it is definitely worth your attention.