Monday, September 22, 2008

American Youth

Alarm bells are rung early in American youth. Its epigraph is taken from Cormac McCarthy’s All the pretty horses. On the dustjacket, Mary Karr writes: 'He’s the new Cormac McCarthy-in-waiting.’ LaMarche even calls the main character ‘the boy'. However, comparisons with McCarthy do LaMarche a disservice. He is his own writer. His restraint is impressive.

American Youth
tells the story of a boy, Ted, who is showing off his dad’s rifles to a couple of friends, brothers Bobby and Kevin. He loads the .22 rifle and leaves it with the safety catch off. As he looks outside he hears a shot and turns to see that Kevin has accidentally shot his brother dead. Ted’s mother, terrified that her son will be arrested and that the family will be sued for negligence, persuades him to lie to the police and say that it must have been Kevin who loaded the gun. This is the simple premise of the story. From this, it becomes an impressive character study of Ted, a decent boy continually on the fringes of trouble.

He is nurtured by a sinister group of boys calling themselves American Youth. These are right-wing bigots who hate foreigners or newcomers, who blame liberalism for society’s ills, and who, while giving the air of being well-behaved and civilised young men, use thuggish tactics to frighten those whom they dislike. They are attracted to Ted, of course, because of the gun incident, the right to bear arms being one of their central tenets. The story is set in an America in depression. Housing development has stopped. People are losing their jobs. Ted’s father has to work in far off Pennyslvania. This, of course, is exactly the sort of environment that right-wing fundamentalists use to foment dissatisfaction, and that is exactly what American Youth do. In this context, it is noteworthy that the novel can be seen as yet another American novel in which some soul-searching about the state of the nation is taking place. The US, at least in literary terms, is undergoing a crisis of confidence.

At first, it seems that Ted is falling under American Youth’s influence, and particularly that of their enigmatic leader, George, but Ted is an individualist who does his own thinking. Ultimately, he sees: ‘a fundamental flaw in the Youth doctrine – they fought to preserve a status quo where there had never been anything but change.’ For Ted, change is inescapable. The novel accelerates to a climax that is gripping and believable, and it is a testament to the skill of the writing that you genuinely care about what is going to happen to this troubled but decent young man. It’s a tightly-written and exciting novel, and it examines some difficult moral issues in a fresh and intriguing way.

It also pursues important political questions, such as the tension that exists between liberalism and the sort of neocon agenda pursued by the Republicans. One of Ted’s classmates wants to write about the gun debate. Explaining his reasons, he questions: ‘the ridiculous concept of blaming an inanimate object for our country’s woes, and how that figures into the larger theme of liberal America’s inability to accept responsibility for their own actions?’ America, according to the Youth, is a country where ‘[t]hese days all they preach is diversity.’ This is the America of Sarah Palin and, like Sarah Palin, the Youth believe they have the answer to the country’s ills. Instead of diversity, they preach puritanism, decency, hard work.

But as the novel unfolds their hypocricy is revealed. “Vandalism,” says George, “is a form of protest.” And the Youth use vandalism to frighten and annoy those they depise, the outsiders. But this vandalism carefully echoes the vandalism which begins the novel, that of George and his slacker friend Terry. Terry represents the sort of values the Youth hate, and yet they are being shown to act in the same way. Thus, their shallowness is exposed.

There are no glib answers here. There is no black and white. Ted is not blameless, he possesses flaws and in particular his treatment of his girlfriend Colleen could at best be described as date-rape. But by refusing to give an easy way out, LaMarche forces his readers to consider their opinions, how they might have responded in similar circumstances, how vulnerable we all are to pressure. American Youth is an excellent first novel from someone who is going to be an important writer.

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