Down and Out in Chicago


The title of this debut novel, Synthetic BI Products, suggests something it doesn’t deliver: a cheeky bisexual romp, possibly set in the future or deep inside a techno-industrial complex. But the truth is, this raw coming-of-age story about late-’80s dead-end kids is much better than the title suggests. Set among the working-class poor in Chicago’s northern suburbs, Synthetic BI Products takes on the culture of white teens with just enough money to get a car but not enough ambition to imagine more than waitressing or tattooing at Grateful Dead shows. For these kids shoplifting is akin to having a paper route, drugs are as common as Pepsi, and sex is as easy, sweaty, and lonely as thrashing anonymously in a mosh pit. The adults seem as present as their honking, invisible counterparts in old Peanuts TV specials.

In Synthetic BI Products, teenage Orleigh’s world is shaken up when, after an all-night bout of drinking, her pal Heather is arrested and committed by her family. Orleigh helps her escape. Together they make it to a safe house in a nearby town. It’s here that Orleigh meets Mark, with whom she falls in love. He’s gorgeous, he’s sensitive, he’s got a smooth chest. With him come the troubles—petty crimes and ugly betrayals—that ultimately ruin Orleigh’s life. Along the way there are road trips and hippy-trippy girls, creepy men and near rapes, and a particularly touching episode in which Orleigh looks up an ex-lover in L.A. whom she believes to be living in the lap of luxury as a hair model, only to discover he’s a pathetic, kept boy sleeping in an upper bunk with a disgusting, domineering old man as his master.

Patterson’s at her best when she’s describing interactions between these kids. Their pained inarticulateness has a real poignance. Some things simply don’t work, however. A flashback to Orleigh’s initiation into a weird teenage suburban sex cult is way off the mark. The cult leaders aren’t credible, though the interactions between Orleigh and Alyssia, the object of her obsession, have the stuff of lived moments.

As depressing as this novel can be, it’s an auspicious, compelling debut. Patterson knows these people well, and her stark, unsentimental rendering makes their story almost impossible to put down.