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Jesse Givens is a sensitive fifteen-year-old who's growing up in a super violent environment. How violent? As the book opens, he's attending the funeral of a boy his age who was shot and killed in a drive-by—and it's not his first trip to this super depressing rodeo. He has attended plenty of other funerals just like this one before. Though he's young, all this violence has taken a toll on Jesse:
I didn't think I was going to get shot in a drive-by or anything like that, but inside I was still nervous. I felt jumpy, not just when a strange car drove by, or some guys I didn't know were on the block, but all the time—even when I was in my kitchen or in the supermarket or at home in bed. It was a drag, and I didn't want to talk to anybody about it. (1.39)
Even for readers who haven't been to—much less lived in—dangerous neighborhoods, it's clear that the constant threat of danger is a heavy emotional and psychological burden. He is palpably weary, and as readers, we feel for him, whether we know first-hand what he's talking about or not.
Making things worse, Jesse's best friend Rise has been acting… well, weird. It's driving Jesse nuts, too, preoccupying him as he struggles to make sense of what's going on with his life-long pal, whom he thinks of as a brother. Slowly, he learns that Rise has been getting involved with some unsavory characters. Though he's close with his parents, Jesse doesn't feel like he can talk to them about it—this is something he has to figure out on his own.
Jesse doesn't understand how Rise could have changed so much seemingly overnight, so he spends much of the book trying to solve this mystery. He uses some unusual tools to crack the case, though: As an artist, Jesse uses his drawings and paintings to help crack the case. He finds that his art reveals truths that may not be immediately obvious to the naked eye:
My dad likes that—to see a picture and say something about how it looks almost like a photograph. But what I want is to draw a picture where I can see more about what I drew than just what it looks like. (11.85)
Drawing is a means of accessing the truth for Jesse, so when Rise asks Jesse to draw a book about his life, he jumps at the opportunity. (They decide to call it an autobiography. Think that's wack? Hop on over to the "What's Up With the Title" section.) Jesse figures he can use the project to sort out what's happened to his friend. His friend's new persona is something of a performance—and he's going to find out what's going on with the real person behind the mask. Not only is he an artist; he's someone who truly cares. Otherwise he wouldn't stick with the autobiography despite his increasing disenchantment with Rise.
Jesse is pretty intense about his new project because he feels like the stakes are high. He says:
I told myself that if I did his autobiography right, if I did a really good job, maybe I could change [Rise] back to what I knew. Because the dude I knew would not have been dealing blow. (8.69)
Drawing, then, isn't just a means of understanding Rise—for Jesse, it's also a way of trying to save his friend. While this is a pretty unrealistic goal (which Jesse sort of acknowledges when he says he "told myself," suggesting he knows this is a more of a story than the truth), his hard work pays off to some extent. He doesn't bring the old Rise back, but eventually, his art does help clarify the situation.
See, when Jesse draws scenes from Rise's childhood, everything comes out fine. But when he tries to draw the present-day Rise, he gets unexpected results. In a series of present-day portraits Jesse works on, Rise is unrecognizable even to Jesse's mother, who knows him really well. Additionally, while Rise asks Jesse to draw him as Superman, the Rise Jesse ends up drawing doesn't look like a superhero at all—in fact, he looks like a villain.
In real life, Jesse watches what's happening to Rise in abject horror. "Looking at Rise, thinking about him, was like going to a horror movie and seeing an evil doll that killed people" (15.13), he tells us. Yikes, right? But now get this: "Seeing dead kids scared me because I knew I could die. And seeing Rise on the deal made me feel the same way" (12.32). Underlying Jesse's horror is the fear that in not quite understanding what's happened to Rise, he might not quite understand himself, either.
Though the entire book is technically about Rise, below the surface, it's really about Jesse's existential crisis. On one hand, Jesse has a strong sense of self; he's an artist, and he knows that art is what he wants to do with his life. But on the other hand, he feels himself pulled into Rise's orbit despite his best intentions. "I wasn't down for no gang-banging, but I was if we were being sucked into it" (19.2), he says. And "sucked into it" he is—against his better judgment, Jesse attends a meeting that Rise arranges between the Counts and the Diablos.
Ultimately, Jesse realizes the folly in writing someone else's autobiography; by definition, it can't be done. Seeing that Rise is the only person who can decide what his life should look like, Jesse decides to hand over the book as a final act of friendship—only Rise can finish it. Rise dies, so he never gets the chance; still, though, in passing off the book, Jesse accepts his inability to change his friend's life, taking a step to disentangle his own story from Rise's and toward becoming more of his own person.