Author Michael Hartnett’s Generation Dementia is an engaging, bittersweet, and ultimately affirming story about the garbage—physical and spiritual—that we produce in our lives.
Hartnett has given us the opposite of garbage: A gem of a story, finely cut and beautifully polished. But it’s a story about trash, or really, about lost kids—Generation Dementia—high school seniors whose lives are adrift toward emptiness and who must find some way to connect to each other and themselves. They do this in a wildly improbable way: By signing up to collect their town’s garbage every morning before school. It’s called Operation Pick-up Kids, devised by a crusty school psychologist on the verge of retirement who hopes somehow—though he doubts it’ll happen—to save as many kids as he can.
The narrator-protagonist is Hash O’Connell, newly orphaned and heading for a collapse after the death of his mother, whom he calls “the Joan.” Hash, depressed and an occasional hallucinator, signs up for Operation Pick-up Kids and slowly seeks answers to his desperate questions. For much of the book, Hash not only empties garbage pails into the truck, he also carefully selects odd pieces of trash to keep and he slowly becomes a hoarder. One of the first pieces he collects is a set of old floppy disks, one of which is labeled “the Answer,” from a deceased Pulitzer prize winning journalist who was somehow connected to “the Joan” before she died. The book follows Hash’s probing into the mysterious “answer,” which leads him deep into the secrets in his family and in his town.
Hash—we never learn how he came by that remarkable name—is a rich and fully drawn character. Michael Hartnett’s story and his writing reminded me of Michael Chabon or the early John Irving: deep emotion without a touch of sentimentality, strong plotting full of surprises and twists, and well crafted and memorable characters with wonderful evocative names. Louie Sacco, Hash’s partner on the truck, Lee Lee, a girl genius who plays violin on the truck, Grandpa Artie, Mayor Heine, Eva (who, despite chain-smoking and guzzling coffee constantly, begins to help Hash begin the long journey back to life), Big Bill Hannah, Rev. Alexander Burr (as in “under the saddle”?), Selena Omaha, the mysterious Mavellas, and of course Pulaski, the school psychologist. All these characters are vivid and true to life, and Hartnett keeps their unique voices pitch-perfect throughout.
Garbage, of course, is not only the literal stuff Hash and the kids must deal with, it’s also a profound metaphor for both the kind of society we seem to want (the town is named “Frick”) and the psychological and interpersonal mess that our dependence on smart phones and screens and our absorption in reality TV are creating. In a remarkable scene early in the book, Hash finds that he is forgetting all the passwords, locker combinations, phone numbers, ID numbers, and personal information about himself—all the information that binds him to others and to his world. He ends up standing at his locker, obsessively and futilely spinning the knob, seeking the combination for hours, and missing all his classes. It’s a heartbreaking moment— but one deftly lightened by Hartnett’s humor. When Pulaski writes an order for Hash to apply for Operation Pick-up Kids, Hash observes that he looked like a physician writing prescriptions, and thinks, “I’d rather he was handing out passwords.” Hash, despite his pain and alienation, is one of the keenest observers and genuinely funny characters I know. Remember Holden Caulfield? Hash has Holden’s edgy wit and his own broken heart.
You can read Generation Dementia simply for its enormously entertaining story, or for its engaging writing, sparkling images and similes, and wonderful characters. You can read it as a commentary on how trash is perhaps the most enduring and connecting thing human beings produce, or as a keen psychosocial exploration of the alienation and despair afflicting so many who are coming of age in a world full of garbage. But at whatever level you read it, I promise you this: The twist in the last two lines of the book will knock your socks off.