FIRST off, a confession. I don't usually make it through books in which characters are marched out nameless, described, say, as "the boy" (whose parents, inevitably, are "the mother" and "the father"). Also -- and this won't make me look good, either -- I'm no fan of coming-of-age novels. Having come of age myself and cranked out my own versions of ye olde bildungsroman, I confess, with some guilt, that I'd rather have eye surgery on a helicopter than plow through one more Hard Times-Harlequin Romance-Adolescence epic of the type made glorious by the talented and famous James Frey.
I'm not saying they can't be genius -- it's just that if I'm going to go country, I'd just as soon re-read Harry Crews.
All of which I mention to out myself as predisposed to dismissing Phil LaMarche's "American Youth" as your basic backwoods, teenage-accidental-shooting, hicks 'n' fascists saga. Happily, I could not have been more wrong. This is one of the most savagely beautiful, emotionally devastating and accurate readings of what it means to grow up in our soul-starved homeland that I've ever read.
By Page 17 -- hating myself -- I realized I was rereading passages the way you'd hold up diamonds and examine them in the light. Sentence by sentence, the author has created a heart-squeezing chain of violence and consequence that makes us care about the characters, who suffer and live in the pitiless rural landscape of a Johnny Cash song. The language sounds pared down, over the years, by someone who took the time to make it perfect.
Break it down and you've got hard people in a hard place. Trying to negotiate the maze of high school, guns, teen sex, marijuana and parents locked in a threadbare marriage, the young protagonist is nonetheless in possession of a feeling heart. Or whatever you call the quality that allows -- or condemns -- a man or boy to be tough enough to endure the unendurable. By the aforementioned Page 17, "the boy" -- who we eventually learn is named Teddy -- comes to with a gun in his hand, one of his "frienemies" is lying dead on the carpet and his mother is staring at him from the doorway. This worst-case scenario sets the stage for the searingly rendered, small-town viciousness to come.
There exists, of course, no more defining American image than death by bullet. And stories of brother-slaying-brother, friend-killing-friend stand out as the most venerable in Western literature. For a lesser talent, this could set off a cliche alert. But LaMarche is not a lesser talent. In fact -- among many things to love about him -- he's audacious enough to depend on his own voice to make a story already moth-eaten by the time Cain slew Abel sound new again.
The book's Big Event -- the shooting -- takes place when the boy is showing his father's handgun to two friends, Bobby and Kevin, who happen to be brothers. It's the kind of high drama moment that can come off like "Law & Order" or Dostoevsky; it depends. Here is the author describing what his bad-luck boy sees after the trigger's been pulled but before he can absorb what's happened: "The boy nearly jumped when Bobby moved. His hand came up and brushed at the small bloody spot on his chest like it was an itch or some crumbs. Then his arm stopped and lay still again. The spot on Bobby's chest was close to his left nipple. With his hand over it, he looked ready for the national anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance."
A dead kid who looks like he was pledging allegiance ... genius! I can't think of a writer alive -- or dead -- who wouldn't get down on his or her knees and thank the Lit Gods for granting an image like that. On some level, the ability to take a situation we've seen, heard or read a million times and render it original is what separates an artist from a hack. Page after page, LaMarche rewards the reader with images and emotions as evocative as anything I've read in years.
After the accident, the boy lies about the shooting and falls in with a group of suspender-wearing wannabe Nazis who snitch on drug dealers, shun sex and alcohol and view vandalism as a political act. (The book takes its title from the name of their group.) After he signs on, Teddy loses his virginity to the leader's girlfriend, earning the gang's wrath and adding their looming vengeance to the ongoing worst-case scenario that is his life. These boys are violent, frustrated, misguided and lost. In other words, they're completely believable.
If "American Youth" were a MySpace page -- and it may be, now that having one seems to be a condition of citizenship -- its friends might be Kevin Canty, Joyce Carol Oates, Gus Van Sant and Russell Banks, along with Kurt Cobain, the Raymonds Chandler and Carver, Craig Nova and those brothers in bildungsroman, Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff. With comments from Flannery O'Connor and Nick Cave.