Simon Pulse, 2003, 201 pp., $6.99
--> I should begin by acknowledging that I'm drawn to novels that explore "big" questions: what's my place in the universe? Why is there suffering in the world? Can we ever truly know others? I find that books of this sort stretch me philosophically and leave me thinking long after I've put them away. I should also add that, in the past few months, I've developed a predilection for horror stories. Put the two together and it's not surprising that I enjoyed Neal Shusterman's Full Tilt, a chilling tale about a teenage boy whose retreat into the recesses of his own mind results in his confronting his deepest fear.
Sixteen-year-old Blake's home life is anything but stable. His father walked out on his family years ago; his mother, having gone through countless boyfriends, is engaged yet again; and Quinn, his younger brother, masks his feelings of alienation and betrayal beneath piercings and defiant behavior. Comparatively, Blake's life is neatly ordered. A conscientious student, he graduated from high school a year early and earned a full scholarship to Columbia University in New York City. He doesn't speed or take risks, and his friends turn to him for advice when they need it. Appearances are deceiving, however, and readers learn that, at his core, Blake is wrestling with his own demons, the most terrible of which is the guilt he feels for having survived a horrific accident when he was a child. For years he's managed to suppress that memory, along with the emotions it evokes for him, but a visit with friends to a theme park one evening toward the end of summer unexpectedly brings the past to the surface.
While on the midway, Blake meets Cassandra, an alluring carnival worker with red hair, icy blue eyes, and an aura of mystery about her. When he wins the game she is working, Cassandra awards him a prize: a ratty looking, disheveled stuffed bear. Examining his prize more closely, Blake discovers a plain white card with an address and an otherwise ambiguous invitation to ride from midnight to dawn. When he turns to Cassandra for an explanation, however, she has vanished. Never one to take risks, Blake returns home, but his brother, eager for adventure and angered by the news of his mother's engagement, takes the card for himself and soon after slips into a coma. Staring into Quinn's eyes as a team of paramedics work frantically to save him, Blake is convinced that he sees the reflection of glimmering carnival lights. Desperate to bring his brother back, he and his friends drive to the address printed on the card where they are surprised to discover a ghostly carnival rising out of the swirling mists of an abandoned quarry. When they enter the carnival, a ticket agent informs them that in order to leave they must finish seven rides before dawn. These are no ordinary rides, however. Instead, they are designed to probe the darkest corners of a person's mind and target their deepest fears, setting Blake on a collision course with his past, and raising the question of whether he can survive the night--mentally or physically.
Full Tilt is one part psychological thriller and one part horror story, a combination that is seemingly rare in literature for teenagers, but which is all the more enjoyable for being so. Despite its strengths, the story is flawed at times by imperfect logic. How, for example, is Quinn able to lose himself in the phantom carnival without leaving home, while Blake and his friends must physically visit the site to rescue him? Still, there is a rich payoff for readers who are willing to suspend disbelief and enter the world of the story. Shusterman does a fine job of building and maintaining suspense throughout the novel, making it difficult to put the book down. Likewise, he constructs sympathetic characters made all the more so by their flaws. Trapped in a realm of nightmares, each of the characters is forced to look inward, and at least one is shattered by what he discovers in himself over the course of the night.
Despite its focus on the supernatural, Full Tilt explores a number of complex themes, not the least of which is the individual's struggle to find order and meaning in a universe that is, if not hostile, at least ambivalent to both. Over the course of the story Cassandra emerges as a metaphor for the chaos that underlies the inexplicable horrors we confront as humans--plane crashes, natural disasters, children struck down by disease. We inhabit a world, Shusterman seems to argue, governed by chance. It is a world in which bad things happen without explanation, and those who try to make sense of them, or who search for some sort of deeper meaning, are destined to be frustrated. Having survived one accident, Blake longs to forgo suffering, which leads him to avoid taking risks. His bedroom is adorned with posters of places he longs to visit, but doubts he ever will. He appreciates model airplanes, but is nervous about the prospect of flying when he leaves for college. He explains:
To be completely helpless in the face of life--powerless to do a thing--that's what I'd always feared more than anything. It was like I'd been keeping all the edges of my life neat and clean, pretending the neatness was all that mattered, pretending life could somehow be controlled. (pp. 108-109)This is, of course, an impossibility, and, as he progresses through the carnivalesque landscape of horrors Cassandra has arranged for him, Blake is brought to the realization that living necessarily entails suffering. The alternative--locking oneself away to minimize hurt and sorrow--is even less desirable, as it amounts to little more than squandering away one's life. True courage, Blake discovers, is the ability to continue living, even in the face of the absurd.