Thomas Mahey feels the literal and figurative walls around him. As the narrator of Justin Tussing's debut novel, The Best People in the World, Thomas takes us with him as he tries to escape those walls.
It is 1972. Thomas is a 17-year-old living in Paducah, Kentucky, a town with a 20-foot high floodwall erected to protect it from the Ohio River. He feels similar walls forming around his life. In the summer before his junior year of high school, his father gets him a job at the local power plant, the same place his father labors much of his life. A self-described "second-tier" student, Thomas is in the vocational program, not the "standard curriculum," as his junior year begins. It reinforces his sense that constraints are being placed on his future.
At the dawn of a new school year you were allowed to pretend that you were not yourself. Something might have happened over the summer. You hoped that you had become smarter or more attractive. It was a small hope, but it was significant. .... But we were juniors now. We were running out of time for reinvention.
It doesn't take long, though, for the events of the summer and the beginning of school to lead him on a bolder journey of reinvention.
One summer evening, Thomas happens to meet the man his father calls "the king of the river rats." Shiloh Tanager, who calls himself an anarchist, lives in a shack he built in the floodplain. He is the legendary, almost mythic, young local ne'er-do-well who has returned after an extended absence. Then, when school starts, Thomas finds 25-year-old Alice Lowe teaching his "History of Technology" class. Thomas and Alice begin flirting and eventually fall in love. When Shiloh's shack is destroyed, he ends up moving in with Alice. Shortly thereafter, urged on by Shiloh, the three decide to leave Paducah and strike out on their own.
Their first stop is New York City, where Shiloh insists on meeting up with a friend both Thomas and Alice find ominous. They then head north, ending up in Vermont. After considering joining a local quasi-religious commune, they end up squatting in a remote abandoned farmhouse. The bulk of the novel explores their lives from and after this point. It shows Tussing at his best and his worst.