Teens receive messages about the dangers of drugs from a range of media and social interactions, but often there is still the promise that ingesting a drug will mitigate psychological pain and overwhelming emotions. Attracted to drugs because of their confusing, evolving feelings, many a young adult falls into the drug world, never to emerge.
While Clean opens with a preface about this subject, it chooses the novel format (not nonfiction) to deliver its hard-hitting message about why teens choose drugs and what happens when they try to erase the harsh realities of their environments by creating an artificial inner bliss.
The first thing to note about Clean is that it's a psychological examination; not a thriller piece. Where other books would focus on drug-taking events and interactions between individuals, Clean tasks its characters with something different: revealing their motivations and emotions
A prologue opens with Lanny's latest drug of choice (a common household item) but then moves backwards in time, five months earlier, to where his hookup with a male classmate is ending. Perspectives switch between the two boys, and readers are treated to gritty observations that punctuate stiff language with gritty insights.
Sex, drugs, school and home pressures, and changed home lives: Clean mixes its drug experiences with messages about the different kinds of pressures teens experience, how they perceive and handle them, and the temptation to flee (however temporarily) life's realities. It also reveals how taking drugs alters not only their experiences and awareness, but affects the reactions of others who react differently to the changed behaviors of a person high on drugs.
All this is wrapped in a plot that moves back and forth through time in clearly-marked chapter headings, charting changing encounters from home life to the wider world, and surveys how kids stumble onto the wrong path and how they come clean.
What does it mean to be and stay clean; to live a drug-free life confronting all one's demons past, present and future without the mitigating aid of a chemical? Add an ongoing romance between two boys who struggle with different aspects and impacts of love and drugs and you have a very different story than most: a hard-hitting, street-wise series of encounters that don't let up and which stay true to the sexual and social milieu of teen life.
Supplement these insights with parents' perceptions of their children and you have a multi-faceted story that, more so than most, hones in on the reasons for staying sober or choosing chemicals in a story fueled by the contrast between a star athlete who chooses drugs and the efforts of a 'loser' to escape his destiny.