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Jesse and Rise have been friends since they were toddlers, so Jesse knows Rise really well. Or at least he used to… Lately it seems like he doesn't know Rise at all. That's because Rise has been secretly going through some major life changes. The main one is that he's decided to try to better his circumstances by pursuing a life of crime. In a neighborhood plagued by violence, he sees this as his best option. Is it a bit of a stereotype? Yup—but it's also something that totally happens.
Rise is seventeen (a.k.a. two years older than Jesse) and transitioning into adulthood. His "good kid gets sucked into a life of crime" storyline will sound familiar to anyone who's ever turned on the TV—like we said, it's a big of a stereotype—and from what he says to Jesse, Rise seems to feel as though he had to seize the opportunity to be a drug dealer because life just wasn't coming through for him:
"One day I seen me standing in the cold by the side of the track waiting for my train to come. All I was getting colder and colder and my train never did come. What I'm thinking now is that I need to get out of the cold." (8.53)
Rise is tired of waiting around for something good to happen; he feels like he needs to take control of his destiny. He's looking for a better life, and in his case, this means going down a rough road.
But that's about as much elaboration as we get from the man himself. For the most part, we hear Rise's story from Jesse's point of view, and Jesse is extremely confused about Rise's motivations. Instead he focuses on what Rise used to be like compared to what he's like now.
As Jesse works on Rise's autobiography, we see snapshots from the history of their friendship. It's through these that we get to know the "old" Rise—the person that Rise was before the book began. "Rise was like a brother to me, and also like my hero" (1.72), Jesse tells us. He was "smart in a deep way"—so smart, in fact, that in a comic he makes about his old friend, Jesse names Rise's character "Wise" (1.72).
Despite the clear admiration Jesse's felt for Rise, Rise hasn't had an easy time of it. Growing up without a father seems like a particularly sore spot for Jesse's pal. In a scene Jesse draws about Rise attending camp, he recalls:
One kid had a badge that read Junior, and a counselor asked him what his real name was. It was Richard, the same as his father's name. Rise took the kid's badge and wore it, and the kid was crying. The counselor made him give it back, and Rise made his own badge that said Junior because he wanted to have one that said he had a father. (19.37)
Though there's no clear indication that Rise's father's absence is what leads him down the path of becoming a criminal, it's a possibility. That absence is a recurring motif in Jesse's comics about Rise, making it clear it's an unhealed wound.
Importantly, while Jesse enjoys drawing these childhood scenes, he has a much harder time drawing Rise in the present day. He attempts several portraits across the course of the novel. Jesse's mom doesn't recognize Rise in any of them, though she knows the guy quite well. In many ways, Jesse doesn't recognize this "new" Rise, either.
It's not clear exactly when Rise became involved with serious criminals. (He reveals his criminal involvement to Jesse slowly over the course of the novel, but it's clear it's been in the works for some time.) To Jesse, though, this new version of Rise seems to have emerged overnight:
A year before, Rise had been just an ordinary dude; now he was sounding like Moses coming down from the mountainside, passing out commandments, signing autographs, and blowing kisses to his fans. (20.27)
Once upon a time, Rise was nobody special in the neighborhood—now, however, he's like a local celebrity. And where the old Rise hated drugs, the new Rise plans to make his living selling them in the neighborhood.
Still, Jesse recognizes that there's an element of performance to this new version Rise. Rise's self-confident mask slips a little when he and Jesse visit Mason in jail. Rise tries to act like everything's cool even though he's clearly intimidated by Mason, who's one scary dude:
When we were going past the police sitting at desks in the next room, I noticed that Rise was shaky. (7.35)
Jesse observes this during the visit, yet later that night, when they discuss what happened on the phone, Rise acts cool as a cucumber. He says, "I might get you to make me a cape. Maybe I am Superman. Might as well be, huh?" (7.48) Yeah right.
Eventually, after learning that Rise orchestrated the murders of at least four people, Jesse decides that the new Rise is here to stay:
This wasn't the Rise I had grown up with, the one who had put his arm against mine as we mingled our blood. That Rise had died somewhere in the past year, perhaps even the past few weeks. The Rise I knew could not have set anyone up to be shot, to be killed. (22.4)
Realizing there's nothing he can do to bring the old Rise back, Jesse gives up on his book. As it turns out, you can't write someone else's autobiography, after all. Instead Rise needs to write it himself, and Jesse plans to explain this to Rise as his final act of friendship.
Rise never gets the opportunity to tell his own story, though. In the final chapter, he's shot and killed. In his death scene, the sense that the new Rise was a mask or an act is solidified when Rise reveals how frightened he is to die. Up to this point, he's been cavalier about death—"When your time comes, you got to go," he says at the beginning of the book; "That's all sad and everything, but that's the word, straight up" (1.22). His final words, however, are "I'm so scared!" (22.55) Who was the real Rise, exactly? Jesse will never know. We're thinking he was a blend of old and new, though.