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Cast away

The God of War A Novel Marisa Silver Simon & Schuster: 274 pp., $23

April 27, 2008|James Gibbons | James Gibbons is associate editor at the Library of America.

Indeed, one of the fresher aspects in this coming-of-age story -- a glutted genre, after all -- is Ares' crush on Mrs. Poole, the well-meaning, rule-conscious librarian who takes Malcolm under her wing to try to teach him to speak. The usual path of the adolescent in such tales, as in life, is to move from repressive parental strictures toward greater freedom, but Ares has been given few taboos to break. Exploring Mrs. Poole's house during one of Malcolm's sessions, he is awed by how neatly everything is arranged, and "could feel her hand on each object, placing it just so. . . . [T]he twilit room felt as if a spell had been cast on it." Rarely has order seemed so enchanted.

Others also offer Ares paths away from his knotty family triad: Laurel's on-again-off-again boyfriend Richard and the Pooles' foster son Kevin, whom Ares comes to idolize. Although he is crucial to the plot, Kevin is a fairly standard-issue juvenile delinquent, and he leads Ares to a group of even more perfunctory lowlifes. But perhaps Kevin's banality is precisely the author's point. In one of the framing chapters set roughly in the present, a 41-year-old Ares reflects on the enigma of adolescent attractions: "[A]s much as I was captive to the bright, angry flame of [Kevin] when I was young, I cannot, even now, easily point to his value except that he happened to be alive for a time through no fault or talent of his own."

"The God of War" is not without flaws. The scenes of trailer soap opera between Laurel and Richard become tiresome very quickly, and I wonder about Silver's decision to have Ares narrate the story from a settled, distanced vantage. The evocations of Ares' confused turmoil are unfortunately mixed with retrospective observations that neatly parcel out his "life" and "self" as abstractions: "I felt betrayed, not by them but by my younger self who had naively accepted everything and had not looked beyond the near horizon of my life to see how insignificant I was"; "I felt trapped between a life I had once enjoyed and one that felt miserable and lonely and bitter."

On the whole, however, the novel is a moving exploration of fraying family bonds deftly balanced with an elegiac parable, one whose desert backdrop lends resonance to Silver's ruminations on the mysteries of violence and loss, love and rage, guilt and blame. Their secrets, she suggests, will always remain mute. *

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