Tonawanda News

August 18, 2013

BOOK NOOK: A story about polluted places and polluted lives

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — The backstory of Corina Vacco’s “My Chemical Mountain” includes inspiration to write a dystopian novel about life amid a toxic cesspool of environmental pollution during her short residence in Western New York, and it may be true. Another (non-fiction) book, by a different author, memorably mentions a visitor to Niagara Falls who was unimpressed with the waterfall but dazzled by the breadth of our landfills.

In Vacco’s book it’s a dead-end life for three young teenage boys in the suburban Buffalo town of Poxton (and the last syllable of that community makes me think she’s hitting close to home), swimming in, and inhaling, chemicals all day and living as risk-taking, disaffected youth who understand their environs are killing them. 

The scenes, the attitudes, the desperation are brilliantly rendered. This book packs one wallop after another; even the moody, introspective parts have action and attitude to them. It is aimed at what the publishing business calls young adults; it means middle and high school boys, and those in that category who want an adventure story with easy-to-identify-with swagger will enjoy it.

Indeed, references to the Buffalo area occur, but only occasionally. There’s the 990 and Sabres merchandise and a few other things, but mostly it’s about three friends, of different temperament and problems, in a no-way-out community and a rapacious chemical corporation, the only employer in town, destroying the place.

Desperation permeates the lives of Poxton’s residents, except for the three protagonists. Bitterness and revenge permeate theirs.

And oh, does the plot gallop, the way a book for short attention types must. It took this reader one sitting, time a little longer than a Hollywood movie, to enthusiastically blast through it. It can be read as an adventure story with a resolution likely to satisfy its intended audience, and the three characters at the heart of the book are adequately different so any reader can identify with at least one.

The author has a remarkable grasp of male teenage angst, anger that comes not only from particular situations but from simply being somewhere between a boy and a man. It’s the forces beyond his control that can make a kid seethe, and this book offers plenty.

Similarly, the author imbues dead-end situations with action. A creek in which the protagonists swim is littered with small animals with birth defects. Disappointments in the life of the main character include a flash in his mind of birds falling from the sky. You can’t soar with eagles if chemicals corrode everything around you, including shoes, lives and souls. 

It’s all bitterness and coping, until the final scene explodes, literally. While not unexpected, the ending offers catharsis for the heroes and the residents of this town full of losers. Out here we know the feeling; the factory that poisons us also employs us. Victims as beneficiaries and vice versa. Everything alive is dying.

The book will likely awaken, or reinforce, the spirit of environmentalism in its readers, if that sort of thing is required. The desperate characters, who swim in less-than-blue water and observe the atrocities of the chemical industry because it’s all around them, are no less aware than kids who think saving the earth merely involves putting recyclable paper into blue boxes.

In vogue these days are tales of coping in end-of-days scenarios, living in worlds laid waste by callousness and chemicals. This book fits in nicely, and has all the required brutalism mixed with the expected tropes of growing up. Even poisoned guys care about bicycles, potential girlfriends and fitting in.

“My Chemical Mountain” offers something of that punch-in-the-gut ethos of hard-boiled detectives, transferred to blue-collar youth living in a cauldron of pollution. It is, needless to say, a cautionary tale, with which some of us, here, have some experience

• WHAT: "My Chemical Mountain" • BY: Corina Vacco • GRADE: A

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident and can be contacted at