The Best People in the World: A Novel
by Justin Tussing
Running on Empty
A review by Ron Charles
Last June, the New Yorker published a preview of Justin Tussing's The
Best People in the World in its debut fiction issue, which -- short of a fatwa
or an Oprah endorsement -- is the best publicity a first novel can get. The excerpt
was about a high school junior in the flood-prone town of Paducah, Ky., who befriends
a mysterious hippie and has an affair with his history teacher. The story displayed
the redolent sadness and delicate plotting associated with Tussing's alma mater,
the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and it ended with one of those inconclusive gestures
associated with the New Yorker's fiction. Reading the novel in its entirety
does nothing to change that first impression: Tussing is a witty, affecting writer
with a melancholy streak and a determination not to give too much away.
His protagonist, 17-year-old Thomas, descends from a long line of kindhearted
young men who narrate stories about their own aimless wandering and brutal initiation
-- from Mark Twain's Huckleberry
Finn to Russell Banks's Rule
of the Bone. He has a wry, laid-back voice that catches the inanity of high
school and the awkwardness of his parents as they try to negotiate his transition
from boy to adult. His father is an earnest man who talks to him like a good
Scout leader, and his mother is kind and concerned. That he develops a crush
on Alice, his pretty new history teacher, seems perfectly natural. But the author
does little to prepare us for Thomas's decision to run away with her and a notorious
vagrant named Shiloh, who speaks mostly in riddles and anarchist slogans.
It turns out, though, that Thomas's sudden abandonment of his loving family
is just the first of several perplexing developments here. Once Thomas, Alice
and Shiloh start driving to New England, the novel leaves behind its gentle
comedy of small-town life and focuses on this unlikely trio. With just a few
hundred dollars, the three of them squat in an abandoned house in the Vermont
mountains. Shiloh plays the part of their eccentric uncle; Alice and Thomas
act like happy newlyweds. Strangely, nothing is ever made of their student-teacher
relationship or the seven-year age difference. They plan to live off the land,
but mostly they enjoy the scenery and talk about each other -- so much more
fun than tending the garden or chopping wood for the winter. (Winter?
Will it get cold in Vermont?)
"Nothing happened here," Thomas says, as though he'd read my mind.
"The polar opposite of action was what we were all about." Whatever
connections they once had to the outside world are only hinted at: Alice is
running from a bad first marriage; Shiloh's lover killed himself, and that's
why he's building something deadly in their basement; Thomas feels bad for leaving
his parents without so much as a note or phone call, but what can one do?
Meanwhile, someone drops off a child and picks her up a few days later. I have
no idea why. Then winter moves in with a snarl. They run out of food and start
eating the wallpaper. The water freezes. The pet raven dies. They begin burning
pieces of the house for heat. The honeymoon's over.
Don't worry: I'm not giving anything away. And neither does the author. The
whole plot finally descends into a kinder, gentler version of Sam Shepard's
"Buried Child" -- a gothic tragedy seen through the scrim of Tussing's
lovely, if slightly overwrought prose: "For a few months we had lived among
green flowers, between blue sky and bluer water. But now across the valley a
black rift tore the lake in two and instead of blue water I saw a patch of starless
space, a gaping mouth. The sky looked ancient, bled of vibrancy; the birds fled
from it, puffed their feathers, waited on branches, sang three-note dirges,
songs that echoed in the cathedral chambers of the earth. We'd become so low
and dusty, so defeated, so poor. What had become of our graces?"
That's a good question, but it's not even in my top 10. Between these chapters,
we read short descriptions about a pair of emissaries from the Vatican who travel
around the world investigating miracles: a girl who cries glass tears, a body
that never decomposes. Like everything in this novel, these scenes are arresting,
but they're also persistently and annoyingly mysterious. Tussing's tardy efforts
to connect all the dots after spacing them so far apart will satisfy only the
most tolerant (or inattentive) readers. Too often, we're left like those Vatican
emissaries searching futilely for explanations. "Without the promise of
salvation," one of them thinks, "faith was like a string without a
kite." That's not a bad metaphor for this lovely novel as it drifts along
its erratic, perplexing course.
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