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.
Tussing excels in creating these characters. He also makes it easy to see and understand things through Thomas’ eyes. Whether it is simply Tussing’s style or a device conveying the narrator’s youth, Tussing builds this tale with precise and generally uncluttered declarative sentences. Here is how he describes the feeling of cabin fever as the three begin to get on each other’s nerves around Christmas:
That empty brightness outside couldn’t reach us. We lived in a vacuum. Heat and sound didn’t communicate the way they used to. We were left with degrees of friction. We rattled off one another like billiard balls. We rang like crystal. Nothing could change until those frozen rivulets on the windowpanes ran as meltwater.
Such straightforward descriptions and the conversational dialogue of the trio paint the possibilities and frustrations, the highs and lows, and the joys and dangers they encounter. They explore not only their relationships with each other but themselves. Slowly, an undercurrent of discontent and foreboding grows and we learn of parts of Shiloh’s past that continue to haunt and affect him and, ultimately, all of them.
At times, though, Tussing seems to lose direction. You wonder how the trio manages to eke out an existence as long as they do, particularly given the few monetary resources they start with and only a couple minor very short-term jobs. A few characters come and go, seemingly serving as little more than vehicles by which to raise a particular point or issue. Thomas tells the story from a much later point in his life yet there is little to help us connect Vermont with later events mentioned in passing. Similarly, each chapter begins with two men who investigate alleged miracles for the Catholic Church. It is only near the end that we learn the connection between those vignettes and Thomas’s story. Although intriguing on their own, their connection with the main story is tenuous enough that the concept comes off as an afterthought.
That does not mean the flaws overwhelm the enjoyment of the book. While they do keep The Best People in the World from being a superb first effort, it is well-written and engaging. It also leaves little doubt that Tussing is an author to watch.