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Wednesday, March 1st, 2006


The Best People in the World: A Novel

by Justin Tussing

It's a Fun House, But You Wouldn't Want to Live There

A review by Anna Godbersen

First novels are often heavy with ambition or caught up in the dreams of adolescence; Justin Tussing's funhouse pastoral of a debut is both, which makes for some curious contradictions. The Best People in the World is, down to its title, sincere with a wink, sage and wicked, bleeding heart and black heart at once. It follows seventeen-year-old Thomas Mahey, of Paducah, Kentucky, as he finds high school lacking ("We existed in a state of hyperawareness and we had dull, thought-less faces"), and then falls for his twenty-five-year-old, newbie history teacher. Thomas, Ms. Lowe (now to be known as Alice), and Shiloh Tanager, the local anarchist-philosopher-oddball, take off in the Plymouth and land in Vermont, where, this being 1972 and all, they commence an off-the-grid existence. Their little gang finds a house to squat in, marvels at nature, gets hot water, plans for winter. For a while, everything seems idyllic ("All we needed to do was stay in love and take care of the garden"), but slowly and surely, things, as they do, begin to fall apart. There are some dark lessons to be learned, out there on the fringe, about freedom and society and responsibility.

There is plenty of dazzle here. Nearly all of Tussing's sentences feel labored-over, gleaming and original. ("The sun, in its vanity, had forced all the birds from the sky," etc.) Perhaps for this reason, his images and observations seem to float away, un-tethered from any larger purpose. With The Best People in the World, Justin Tussing doesn't really deliver a satisfying character-driven novel or a novel of ideas, but he promises, with every page, great things to come.

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