Trash

A Novel

Andy Mulligan

David Fickling/Random House: 240 pp., $19.99

Popular young adult fiction is dominated by fantasy and tales that trade in the tropes of high school hierarchy and unrequited love. So it's refreshing when a book takes us into the largely unexplored Third World and the experiences of its unprivileged, as is the case with "Trash," a gem of a young adult debut from author Andy Mulligan.

Told in multiple first-person voices, primarily from the points of view of "dumpsite boys" who spend their days wading barefoot through piles of waste —excremental, recyclable and otherwise — "Trash" is a fast-paced romp of a murder mystery that takes readers knee-deep into the muck of an impoverished life spent amid castoffs, where money is hard-earned through the search for plastic bottles and tin cans, and clothes aren't purchased but found.

The country in which this unfolds is not stated. But the scenarios in which 14-year-old orphans Gardo and Raphael find themselves, along with Jun-Jun, their 10-year-old trash-heap compatriot, indicate the location is Catholic and could be in South or Central America, or Manila in the Philippines, where the story's author lives and has worked with a school that is literally situated on a dumpsite that can be smelled long before it is seen.

The three boys occasionally attend their religious mission-run school, but most see classroom learning as less valuable than picking through trash in the hopes of finding items that might actually be worth something, like a wallet filled with money, as Raphael does. The wallet was part of a "special" — an unripped trash bag from a wealthy part of town. In addition to the wallet, there was a key, some photos, a map.

A visit from the police informed Raphael and Gardo the find was valuable — even more valuable than the reward money being offered. Fearing a police raid, they decide against hiding the wallet in their "house," built from truck pallets held together with found plastic and canvas. For that, they recruit Jun-Jun, who lives in a rat-infested pit no one, least of all the authorities, would visit.

To piece together the meaning of the wallet, the three boys are forced to leave the dump. Doing so brings them first-hand knowledge of the corruption of their country's government, the brutality of its police force and, most touchingly, the friendships that evolve from misfortune.

The action takes readers from one unfamiliar world to another. It starts with daily life in the trash pile, then moves to a police station where Raphael is tortured, then a prison where Gardo finds out about a coded Bible that will help the boys understand how a wallet ended up in the trash. They break into a senator's estate, infiltrate a grave site, stow away on a train. Fast-paced and adventurous, their journey is a wild and eye-opening trip into the disparities of one country's wealth and poverty.

"Trash" is written in short chapters divided into five parts, which together have a sort of "Rashomon"-like quality since they are told in the voices of characters who were somehow involved in unearthing the meaning of the wallet: Father Juilliard, who runs the dumpsite school; Sister Olivia, the school's bleeding-heart British social worker who was duped into helping the boys and, as a result, deported; Grace, a maid who worked with the man who owned the wallet. Told in the past tense to recount a story that benefits from hindsight, each chapter begins with the narrators identifying themselves and explaining their reasons for penning their parts of the novel.

An imaginative and detailed plot, enhanced with an intriguing storytelling technique, "Trash" is every bit as special as the wallet around which its story revolves.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com