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Washington Post Book World
Friday, February 24th, 2006


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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