Excerpted in last year's New Yorker debut-fiction issue, Justin Tussing's first novel, The Best People in the World, tells the coming-of-age story of Thomas Mahey, in a poetic and sometimes mercilessly descriptive voice, mixing measured emotion with mysticism and humor.
THE GIST: Spending the summer of '72 working with his father at the local electricity plant, 17-year-old Thomas has begun his initiation into the adult life of small-town Paducah, Ky. The following school year, a new teacher, Alice Lowe, inexplicably falls for Thomas, providing him a way out of his lackluster world. Thomas and Alice run away with town misfit and sometime resident Shiloh Tanager, and the three make their way to an abandoned house in rural Vermont, with dreams of free-spirited, communal living.
THE COMPLICATION: Tensions soon emerge. Shiloh's murky past encroaches on their new life. A lifelong wanderer, he has collected some unsavory friends, and for a brief time had a young male lover whose death is surrounded by mystery. Alice also has a past, a failed marriage she abandoned. As the youth, Thomas still has his innocence—and for some time the novel hangs on who will possess his loyalty, Alice or Shiloh.
The three barely survive the Vermont winter, their emotional and physical deterioration described with beautifully and sometimes perversely raw language. Unfortunately, The Best People in the World becomes a story about people who don't know how to take care of themselves.
WHAT WENT AWRY: Although the novel's narrator is a middle-aged Thomas, the story still sounds as though it is told by a naive teenager, relying heavily on description to convey character and plot dynamics. Dialogue hovers at the surface; arguments and conflicts are often stated rather than re-created. Thomas Mahey recalls Denis Johnson's emotionally detached characters, who also find themselves in bizarre, almost harrowing situations that seem to have been created mostly by forces and people out of their control.
FINAL SAY: Although the novel's characters are largely isolated from the outside world, history still shadows its pages. The Best People in the World joins the many existing stories about '60s road trips, free love and social experimentation gone wrong. But Tussing's depictions of the group's experiences and their time in history are original. They are a sympathetic, intriguing group, and it's hard to see them fail.
Justin Tussing, now teaching at Lewis & Clark College, will be reading at Powell's on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 238-1668. 7:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 16. Free.