Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Phil LaMarche
Random House, 224 pages, $21.95
American Youth is one of those novels that seems to touch a chord with its readers—summing up all that hasn’t been said about a culture and bringing to light a dirty secret everyone knows but no one had been able to put into words like this. It simultaneously manages to be ultra light and intensely heavy. The story reads quickly, forcing the reader forward, even as the sumptuous prose pulls you back to re-read, and then read again to pull out the subtle nuances, the hints and connections, and the symbols which are everywhere. Ted, the protagonist, initially known as “the boy” is small, insecure and struggling within the confines of his life even before the accident which transforms his life. The local economy is bad, and his salesman father moves 8 hours south to work while Ted and his mother wait for non-existent buyers to purchase their house so they can join him.
Ted is about to start high school and in his summer break, spends time with his larger friend Terry throwing Molotov cocktails at an abandoned development and wrecking the ‘for sale’ signs in front of his house. Ennui and discomfort surround him, and the reader immediately gets the sense that Ted is an observant boy, quiet and uncomfortable in his skin:
As he walked, the din of evening crickets poured in from the surrounding woods. The pavement was old and cracked at the edges. The sand the town spread for traction in winter collected in small dunes in the ditch. Trees grew close at the sides and reached over the road. Some bore scars from accidents and run-ins with snowplows. Here and there a beer can littered the ditch, sometimes a hubcap or paper coffee cup. (11)
When Ted invites his well-off neighbours, the Dennisons, over to play, the boys are obviously bored with Ted’s lack of television stations, lack of soda, and lack of entertainment, so Ted allows himself to be drawn into showing them his rifle. He also allows himself to do something he shouldn’t—load the gun, and then guiltily checks to if his mother is watching. In that split second, one of the brothers shoots the other one, an action which changes the direction of the book, and both opens and closes a series of doors in Ted’s world.
On every level, the prose in this book is superbly rendered—taut, intense, and forward moving, while at the same time retaining an almost painful sense of introspection that allows the reader to get under Ted’s skin:
The book looked at them. Their eyes seemed so eager, so captivated. He held out his hand and Kevin returned the bullet to his palm. He took a breath and drew back the action. He looked at Kevin and Bobby as if to say, Like this, and let the bullet into the chamber. He fisted the bal on the end of the bold, slid it forward, and locked it down. It felt beautiful – the slide and clack of steel coupling with steel. He exhaled and looked at them. They smiled. Bobby rocked back and forth from one foot to another. (16)
In the lonely aftermath of an accident that leaves Ted feeling culpable, mainly because of his lie about loading the gun, Ted begins high school, where he is sought after by a group of boys who form a kind of gang which they call ‘American Youth.’ The story pivots around Ted’s coming of age as he tries to find ways to deal with his guilt, his increasing confusion towards the gang, his family, his growing sexuality, and above all, his sense of self.
The morality of the book is clear and becomes clearer to Ted as the narrative develops along with his own maturity, but never does LaMarche allow his fingernail paring narrator to interrupt, nor does he ever tell the reader what to think or how to interpret events. As the gang’s brutality, bigotry and anger becomes more apparent, Ted’s own anger and pain rise to the fore and he has to confront the inchoate demons that torture him far more than the gang’s violence. The myopic disfunctionality of Ted’s world isn’t a distopia. It’s here and now, as the news makes all too clear. It might not only be America either, although the relationship between political bigotry and widespread gun ownership is something that seems particularly endemic to the US.
Although the story is a deeply troubling one, raising complex questions about a range of issues–from the myopic violence and self-hatred that fills the lives of these hopeless children to the speechless emptiness of Ted’s family life–it isn’t depressing. Perhaps it’s the poetic beauty of Ted’s inner world; the correspondences he sees, or the courageous decisions he takes that allows the characterization to rise above it’s plot. There are so many subtle symbols, connections and correspondences. The ‘American Youth’ gang insist that Ted take on the role of hero, forcing him to make a choice that turns him into a real hero. Ted’s mother throws a decorative rug over a missing rectangle of carpet, and tells him that the truth doesn’t matter. But Ted knows full well that it does; that there are choices to be made in life; that there is such a thing as right and wrong that transcends both the accidents that define us, and the physical pain of scars, beatings and loneliness.
The book is full of rich passages, a deep sense of what is powerful and beautiful in human nature, and a heady dose of symbolism shoring up the desolation of its setting. It’s Ted’s deep understanding of that desolation and his sense of there being something more, both within and without him that makes this such a powerful read:
The evening air poured through the flimsy walls of his small hut and lean-tos. No matter how tightly he thatched the branches that he broke from the surrounding trees, light from the rising moon and stars poured through the makeshift ceilings. The cold and the solitude sent him shivering home every time. Upon his return, he found his parents glued to nighttime television. They looked up, even greeted him, but never seemed to acknowledge his absence. He felt somehow robbed, unable to drum up their attention—they never even acknowledged the familial strife that had sent him running in the first place. (204)
American Youth is a perfectly rendered novel which manages that difficult balance between absolute topicality—this is a novel for our times—and timeless beauty. This is both a classic piece of literature and an important chronicle of a generation desperate to get out of a downward spiral.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening. “As the drama coils tighter and tighter, it is this quality of writing that keeps the reader utterly glued.”