During a sermon, while I sat defiantly drawing donuts to tease my gnawing hunger, I heard a pastor refer to submission and controlled power. Though I suspect his account may have been tempered to appeal to the objects of his subjugation, the words have never left me, have always bridled in corral of my mind. The definition returned to me while reading Justin Tussing’s novel, The Best People in the World. Thomas Mahey, the book’s protagonist, embodies the spirit of unassuming power. Additionally, it is in this tenuous land of seemingly warring concepts that the novel emerges.
Toward the end of the novel Shiloh Tanager, an anarchist and a savior, explains his name, “Shiloh is a massacre and Tanager is the name of my favorite bird. This describes perfectly how I felt at eighteen.” And it describes perfectly how Justin Tussing’s novel feels. The book encompasses the ethereal hollowness of the vibrantly colored tragedy of life. It’s as if the world is as hard and as resilient as a piece of steel and Tussing has found the dent in that steel and shown us its hard-wrought beauty.
In a world still groaning in the hangover of post-modernism, Tussing has written a book of seeking without finding, of possessing in loss and of living through death. The Best People in the World chronicles the journey of Thomas Mahey, a high school student who falls in love with his teacher, Alice, who together with the local vagrant, Shiloh Tanager, set out to press the boundaries of the life they have been given.
But the novel is not one of the many clichéd coming-of-age-on-a-road-trip stories currently clogging up the literary pipes. Nor is it a kitschy rendition of the gritty well-documented transition between boy and man. Rather, the novel, though it uses the tropes of adolescent literature (an illicit love affair with an older woman, a homeless man and unfettered freedom), avoids the pitfalls of the banal by keeping the reader constantly at a distance. It achieves this distance by simultaneously inviting readers in and betraying them, offering emptiness when there should be fullness and death where there should be life and miracles in a hopeless world.
With a tension that is redolent of Faulkner’s love affair between Ike Snopes and his cow, the novel walks a tightrope between the familiar and the taboo. Thomas, a minor, falls in love with his teacher who is eight years his senior and the two develop a relationship. Yet, they see one another every day and their relationship is born of familiarity. Similarly, Shiloh, the familiar character of the slightly insane homeless man, pushes the limits of his social boundaries by finding love in deepest and darkest places of our social taboos.
The Best People in the World is Justin Tussing’s first novel, though he’s no stranger to the world of literature. Tussing is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and former Director of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. Yet, the book possesses none of the manufactured qualities that so easily infect well-trained writers. Though the prose is polished, the story remains elemental and honest.
In the beginning of the book, Thomas works with his father at a plant that harnesses the power of the Ohio River for power. While the river supports the town and bequeaths its residents with an identity, the mighty waters are menacing, constantly threatening to wash them away. The novel like the river is a natural force, raw and powerful without ever losing control. Tussing, in an interview with The New Yorker remarked, ” I’m fascinated by floods and I’m fascinated by the way people control them.” And it is this delicate dance between power and control that Tussing’s novel so expertly masters making him a writer to watch.