In 2010, bestselling and award-winning young adult and children’s author Walter Dean Myers published Dope Sick
, a magical realist
novel that examines the way bad choices in an environment of disadvantage can lead to disastrous outcomes. Presented as mostly a conversation between a troubled teenager and a mysterious, possibly magical drifter, the novel takes us through the life of a young man whose future seems to only contain terrible options like prison or death. By considering the ramifications of decisions made along the way, our protagonist discovers how his past actions have impacted his present, and learns how to plan for a different future.
We open in a ghetto of New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where a 17-year-old-boy named Jeremy Dance is running from the scene of a crime. He has been shot in the arm, which he fears is now broken. Suddenly aware that a police officer is looking at him, Jeremy – or Lil J – ducks into a vacant apartment building, hoping to avoid the cops by hiding on the roof. As the pain from his arm almost makes him pass out, Lil J decides to try his luck in one of the apartments.
In the apartment, he meets Kelly, a seemingly homeless squatter who offers Lil J a chance to watch the chase he just experienced on the TV. Suspicious, Lil J first tells Kelly that his name is Roger Jones, but as he is slowly convinced that Kelly really does have access to a magical TV with a remote that can replay moments from Lil J’s whole life, the teenager starts sharing his life story. Throughout their conversation, Kelly asks Lil J if there is a moment in his life that he would change if he could – and Lil J insists that that the moment he needs to change is what happened to get him in this mess in the first place.
Lil J tells Kelly that he lives at home with his mom, and a lot of his stress and anxiety comes from their poverty. Although he has tried to apply for nearby jobs, he hasn’t been able to land anything steady. Lil J’s friend Rico is an up-and-coming heroin dealer who ropes Lil J into doing a side job by flaunting his 300-dollar-a-day earnings.
The side job – a big drug deal – happened the day before. Rico and Lil J were in the middle of selling to their buyer when Lil J got the sense that something about the man was off. Nervous, Rico assaulted the man and handcuffed him to a banister and the two teens left. But soon, a panicked and high on heroin Rico returned and fatally shot the bound man. As they ran from the scene, it turned out that their prospective buyer was actually an undercover cop, whose partner shot at the boys fleeing and hit Lil J’s arm. Lil J was able to evade the police pursuit, but Rico was found and arrested.
Lil J knows that Rico won’t hesitate to implicate him in the shooting, and probably has told the police that Lil J is the one who pulled the trigger. Now as his heroin high wears off and he starts entering withdrawal – getting “dope sick” – Lil J doesn’t know where to turn. In despair, he assumes that his life is over. Either he will go to jail, or, more likely, he will die as the whole of the police force pursues him in order to avenge the murder of one of their own.
Confirming his worst fears, Kelly shows the boy a scene from his future on the magical TV. In it, Lil J is on the roof of the building, about to commit suicide as the police storm in downstairs. Lil J contemplates turning his gun on himself. Again, Kelly asks what Lil J would change about the past if he could. Again, Lil J insists that what needs to be changed is the previous day’s drug deal – that’s the only way he can escape the police.
Turning the conversation in a different direction, Kelly probes into the young man’s life and the decisions he has made along the way. Lil J admits that he also is a drug user, and that he was also high during the events of the day before. Lil J tells Kelly about his ex-girlfriend Lauryn, the mother of Lil J’s son Brian. Because of his drug use and his association with Rico, Lauryn doesn’t let Lil J see Brian. The young man feels like a failure. Not only should he not have gotten Lauryn pregnant in the first place, but now he is being the same kind of absentee father that his own father had been. His feelings about the situation are amplified by the fact that Lauryn’s mother is trying to get her to marry a stable older man with a good job.
Again, Kelly demands that Lil J decide what to change to turn his life around. But the problem is that there isn’t one huge mistake that he can undo. Instead, his life has just been a series of bad circumstances and bad choices, each leading to the next. He can only imagine undoing the bad drug deal, which is an answer that Kelly seems unhappy with. Lil J decides instead to simply turn himself in to the police. But before he can do that, Kelly takes away his gun, shoots out the window of his apartment building, runs downstairs, and dies in a gunfight with the police. The commotion allows Lil J to get away undetected.
The novel ends when Lil J is watching his own TV later that day and sees on the news that the officer’s shooter has been found. This means that Kelly fulfilled his promised and freed Lil J from the one mistake he could think to unmake. On another TV channel, Lil J sees himself talking to Kelly – an ambiguous ending that implies that Kelly is some kind of magical being that Lil J may encounter again.