The Dangers of Control:
What I Learned from Reading Trevor D. Richardson's Dystopia Boy

by Amber Marshall

Downtown Portland, 2011. The Occupy Portland Movement is in full swing. Under the tarpaulins and rope and duct tape of the makeshift tent city, through the maze of fold-out tables and pop-up booths for the cause of the day, there sits this little plastic bin with a message in Sharpie marker on the front:

Take One

There were four copies left by the time I came along. It was Trevor Richardson's first novel, American Bastards, and the front was inscribed with a message saying he hoped we like the book and maybe it will fend off boredom for a few hours while we all try to take our stand. Since that time, I have become a fan of Trevor Richardson's and have followed his work with rapt attention. From American Bastards, to his magazine The Subtopian, to his second novel, Honeysuckle & Irony, and now, finally, to his most recent offering, Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files.

In all of this work, I have begun to notice a few common threads. Creative expression is more than just a career path, it is how we write our history. Money for money's sake is beyond shallow, it is harmful to everyone, even the rich. Pop culture is fun, but also a means for fable, allegory, and parable to get a point across, (in Dystopia Boy, the characters refer to elements of pop culture as “their Bible” citing references to Star Trek or Terminator the way a Bible thumper references the gospels.) There are many more common themes in his work, the need for tolerance, the absurdity of believing anything you think you know is right, or the fun and value of getting out of your own head, chemically or otherwise. Perhaps more prominent than any of these themes, however, is Trevor's ability to hide a subtle message in every plot point, in every character rant or beautifully edgy, poetic prose: let go.

In American Bastards, the main character is plagued by nightmares until he finds himself hanging from a cliff in a dream and told to just let go. In Dystopia Boy, the main character, a child of mixed lineage, half white and half Blackfoot Native American, is gifted the ability to commune with the Internet if he can just get out of his own head. If, in other words, he can just let go. I won't go into why he is able to talk to computers, there are spoilers there that Trevor might not like me revealing, but I can tell you that this character, Joe, spends much of his childhood trying to get into what Blackfoot mythology calls “the power of dreams.” While dreaming, he learns to use his gift, later, and more humorously, learning to use it while on psychedelic drugs.

The conflict of the story, and Joe's reaction to it, has a similar message. America, in the last days of its democracy, is teetering on the edge of corporate rule and theocratic takeover. Money and God have conglomerated into one nasty national power and it is sweeping the nation, taking freedoms with it. To Joe, everything can be solved if everyone could just stop trying to control everything. The drive to enforce God's will on the world and the drive to accrue more wealth and own everything are, in fact, the same desire. A desire to control the world. The only hope for freedom and humanity is to just let go.

When Joe gets a little older, he and his best friend, Lee, runaway from home to live as traveling folk musicians. Their music, according to the narrative, is only okay, but they achieve sweeping success anyway because they don't seek wealth or even fame. They seek only what they need to stay on the road and keep playing, everything else is given back to the people – an increasingly impoverished, struggling, often homeless people. They, and their music, attain a kind of Robin Hood mystique and become famous for what Lee refers to as “a progressive return to the past.” In other words, if you find yourself on the wrong road, the only way to go forward is to go back. You have to give up your presumed accomplishments, your false pride, abandon all that, and return to that point in the road where you made your wrong turn.

Perhaps most archetypal of all the book's symbols of this message of control as the enemy is the source of the story's narration. We learn about Joe through Agent Emmett Anders, a member of a covert government surveillance agency tasked with watching all movements of all people in the United States at all times. Through a network of hidden cameras, audio recording devices, internet spyware, cell phone bugging and the like, these men, the “Watchers,” scan and record all of our movements. When someone becomes a person of interest, they have a backlogged database of everything that person has ever said or done on camera, stored away in their massive, underground server. Anders learns about Joe when, one morning, he sits down at his cubicle and this face is staring back at him through the monitors. It's Joe, and he says, “I know you're out there. I know you're listening...I just want you to know we're not taking this lying down.”

Somehow, at the moment he blinks, all of the systems at the Watcher compound go nuts, a viral attack, Joe is branded a “techno-terrorist” and Anders is assigned Joe's record for review. We watch Joe's life through that record, through the eyes of Agent Anders, as he grows up from a troubled kid with an absent Native American father and a white, chain-smoking religious mother, to being hospitalized for emotional disturbances, to becoming a cultural revolutionary through his music, and eventually becoming the symbolic leader of a technological rebellion against the American government. It's a wild ride, with a lot of cool imagery, a lot of mind-bending plot twists, and a simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming story of the two boys that are bonded by their loytalty to each other, but defined by their love for one girl: Audrey Lamb.

Throughout the story, Joe and Lee are separated from Audrey, their mutual childhood sweetheart. At times she is forbidden to both of them because of their love and respect for each other, at other times they are simply living apart from each other or on the road, she is often in trouble, imprisoned, lost or just gone. It's one of those tragic love stories where you root for everyone and no one all at once and things just seem fated to never work out. But Audrey herself, in spite of not getting as much face time as the two rock stars, is a fully realized female character that gracefully avoids the typical tropes of “the love interest.” She says no when you expect her to say yes. She is strong, almost motherly, when the boys are a wreck. And in one very special plot twist that also must go unsaid, she basically brings all the scattered chaos of the story under one umbrella. She is the lynchpin of the story without being any of the typical extremes – damsel in distress, sexy femme fatale, or more recently the “literally strong woman” in the form of sexualized action star. Audrey is just a girl, full Blackfoot by birth, who acts as both a spirit guide and an inspiration to Joe in his search for the power of dreams and as a source of light in an ever-darkening America. When the press is silenced, Audrey takes to guerilla tactics to print and broadcast the news off-grid, when people are in danger of being rounded up and shipped out of Portland, Oregon, she organizes an art commune into a kind of artistic flea market to raise money from rubbernecking tourists. She is as tenacious as she is clever and I hope to see more from her in the inevitable followup.

The verdict? Trevor Richardson is a writer to watch. Odds are, you've never heard of him, hopefully that will change, because there are very few writers out there that have the ability to show you the world as they see it so delicately. His stories scream a lofty message, but they don't become pedantic or preachy because the issues are so clearly engrained in the nature of the conflict. His characters are idealistic while being as flawed as real people. But more than that, these things don't cross over into excess as a lot of modern fiction is often guilty of doing. The events and the people feel like real, natural biproducts of the world they have to live in and you can't help but put yourself in there shoes. And that makes you feel the stakes so much more. Dystopia Boy is a road tripping, rebellious adventure into the black heart of a failing republic and an in-your-face hallucinatory romp that brings the traditions of Philip K. Dick, George Orwell, and Alan Moore into one cohesive epic. For anyone that ever felt like giving a middle finger to everything wrong with America, read Dystopia Boy and watch Trevor's characters do it for you.

Published by Montag Press, 2014