You’re Supposed to be Uncomfortable

The Harsh Truths and Hopeful Teens of A.S. King’s ‘Dig’

Meet the Shoveler, a Freak who flickers, Loretta and her lunchbox flea circus, a dealer who sells weed through the Arby’s drive-through, and anxious Malcolm.

Each teen struggles to make sense of the world, from Loretta’s imagination-fueled escapes into increasingly complex flea choreography to Malcolm, who knows his father’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis is dire.

A.S. King introduces them, along with the rest of her cast, through a series of episodic chapters that open the inventive, keenly-observed Dig, an early contender for best young-adult novel this year.

In addition to the teen characters, King introduces us to Marla and Gottfried Hemmings, an older couple whose marriage has ossified into chosen roles: Marla, the judgy matriarch who focuses more on repainting their house for Easter than her relationships with her children, and Gottfried, the kind yet enabling husband.

King doesn’t reveal how these disparate people truly connect until the end of the book, and I won’t spoil it here. But from the beginning of Dig, these characters embody harsh truths about how we deal with one another. They challenge notions about family, class, gender, race and privilege in a story that demands reflection without ever veering into didacticism.

Author photo © Krista Schumow Photography

King’s teens do “normal” things. They party on a weekend night after a fast-food shift, take math placement tests in a new school, and hunt for jobs in the classified section. They also grapple with the unsavory sides of their existence. Loretta imagines herself as a character in a perpetual drama: “The actors who play her parents have been working really hard on their fight scene. They replay it every night and the husband character is working on his improvisation. Sometimes she hears the sound effects–the slaps and kicks and breaking things. He’s really coming along for a guy who only has nights to rehearse.”

And they notice. Oh, how they notice. They see the special baskets that hold snacks in first-class, the bell decorated in blackface, the “100 percent White Power” tattoo.

“I don’t think I can survive four more days with my grandparents,” Malcolm thinks, after being dispatched to Marla and Gottfried’s house for a few days. “I’ve tried so many times to get Marla to see things from a twenty-first century point of view, but she doesn’t want to see anything. She just keeps the perks–her smartphone, her remote-start BMW, cable TV, and those plastic bags that steam vegetables in the microwave–that’s all this century is to her. She will never wake up. She will never admit that Dad is dying of cancer, either. She says he’s going to be fine.”

And they do surreal things. They flicker in and out of each other’s lives, schools and driveways, and dive into underground tunnels.

“The tunnel protects me from the real effects of this,” the dealer thinks when her mother grounds her for two weeks over low grades. “The tunnel protects me from politics and parents and impossible possibilities…Grounded? I’ve been grounded by having a mother who thinks I’m naïve for not hating my best friend because of the amount of melanin in his skin.”

While awful things happen in this book, King ultimately tells a hopeful story, all because of the teenagers’ fierce insistence on building a world far different than their parents’. In the acknowledgements, King notes, simply: “This book is supposed to be uncomfortable. I’d apologize, but I’m not sorry.” No apologies necessary. Dig is writing at its finest.

(Dutton/Penguin, March 26, 2019)

Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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