Book note: ‘Chasing Tail Lights’


Chasing Tail Lights is a prime example of an alarming trend in Young Adult fiction. This is the stereotype that teens are moody, depressed and lonely, and identify only with characters who share these traits. Like all stereotypes, it has only a loose basis in truth. But it is an impression which seems to dominate the world of teen literature. It seems that ninety-nine out of every hundred books for teens written recently features a seriously depressed protagonist, with alienated and/or dead parents, few or no friends, and a tendency to feel sorry for him or herself.

Chasing Tail Lights by Patrick Jones, published by Walker and Company (2007). $16.95.

Chasing Tail Lights seems written around those parameters. It is the tale of a teenage girl, Christy, about whom it is an understatement to say that she has serious problems. Her father is dead and her mother uncaring. Her elder brother is a pedophile who frequently abuses her. She has only one friend at school and has a highly developed inferiority complex. To add to it all, she is addicted to meth.

Minnesota Book Award nominees in the Daily Planet:
• Jennifer Holder on Catherine Friend’s The Perfect Nest
• Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva on Catherine Watson’s Home on the Road
• Cyrus Wolff on Will Weaver’s Defect

A flaw apparent from the beginning is the story’s lack of originality. The characters and situations read like they have been recycled from other teen novels, but with even more violence and negativity. Its theme of a loner who learns to stand up for herself is possibly one of the ten most commonly used themes in all fiction. Most of the supporting characters seem stereotypes personified: the supportive friend; the abusive older brother; the distant, alcoholic mother who has time only for her eldest child, etc.

But all of this could be forgiven if not for the far more damaging issue of Christy’s character. She is, in a word, a whiner. Throughout the entire novel the reader is subjected to a barrage of moans and cries of “I’m not good enough.” Although she desperately wishes for her situation to change, she does nothing to effect that change. Throughout most of the book, she is merely a passive victim of circumstance, so that, although one can pity her and to a certain degree sympathize with her situation, it is impossible to like her. The author neglects to show her positive qualities, the focus of the book being the misfortunes which grind her down. Is the average teen supposed to be able to identify with that?

In the end, she does finally learn to “stand up for herself,” but does so in a bizarre, underhanded, and illegal way. Amazingly, the author presents this as something to be applauded!

I would not recommend this book, and find it astonishing that such an obviously flawed narrative has been nominated for a Minnesota Book Award.

Cyrus Wolff is homeschooled in Princeton and studies classic literature, focusing on nineteenth century fiction. He is a book reviewer for and writes short stories and essays.