So many first novels are thinly disguised, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age stories, and at first glance, Justin Tussing's idiosyncratic debut, The Best People in the World, might seem to fall into this category. For one thing, it has the requisite teenager-in-love, first-person narrative to lend verisimilitude to emotions and events. But Tussing, in his mid-30s, was but a toddler in the early 1970s when the novel takes place, so while much of this rather unusual tale of three rudderless characters who form a makeshift family seems like it must have happened, it would appear to be wholly the product of a fecund, undeniably original imagination.
Said teenage narrator is Thomas Mahey, a Paducah, Kentucky, boy of no particular note. Restless, as teenagers are wont to be, Thomas becomes involved in two arguably inappropriate relationships he befriends a vagrant named Shiloh Tanager and starts a love affair with his 25-year-old history teacher, Alice Lowe. Coincidentally (or perhaps not Thomas is never sure), Shiloh becomes Alice's roommate after the lean-to he has been living in along the banks of the Ohio is submerged by floodwaters. It's just a matter of time before this trio of unlikely friends lights out for new territory, heading north in Alice's old Plymouth with just a few thousand dollars between them.
The first stop is New York City, where Shiloh reconnects with a creepy friend, Parker, who directs them to Vermont and the commune of a free-love spouting neo-religious group (it is the '70s, after all). When they find there is no room at the inn, so to speak, Thomas, Shiloh and Alice drive into the backwoods, where they find a deserted farmhouse in which to take up residence. Shiloh, a self-described anarchist, albeit one with a practical nature, knows how to bring electricity and water to the house. The squatters soon make themselves a tidy little home. They become a kind of devoted, dependent family, but like all families, have their share of tensions, especially when the menacing Parker shows up, and he and Shiloh set to work building something in a secret room in the basement. Before he is run off the property by an irate Alice, Parker lets slip that Shiloh once loved a boy who killed himself a past that will eventually work its corrosive powers.
Things are close to idyllic for a time, with the three managing to subsist off the land, but when the weather begins to change and the harsh Vermont winter descends, the situation becomes bleak. With little fuel or food, desperation starts to undermine the familial happiness. As a tangible metaphor for the impending fate of the household, the trio begins stripping their home of wood, burning it bit by bit to ward off the cold. Yet before things collapse, Thomas, Alice and Shiloh do create something singularly beautiful an unconventional bond of love and responsibility. That this bond ultimately cannot survive is the quiet tragedy that makes The Best People in the World so effective.
Tussing, though, is aiming for more than a story of noble friendship among emotional misfits, and because of these ambitions, novelist and novel falter somewhat. Hints of the divine pervade the story, not least of all in the opening chapters of each section, wherein two priests from the Vatican traverse the world in vain search of verifiable miracles. The connection between these priests and our Vermont homesteaders is unclear almost until the end, when we come to realize that the last miracle they investigate is tied to Shiloh and his erstwhile young lover. Tussing takes this jarring leap into the mystical late in the story, and it intrudes, undermining the hardscrabble realism that gives the narrative its momentum.
Read for its strengths, though, The Best People in the World is an impressive work of fiction by a writer blessed with a distinctive voice, and the eyes and ears for the well-observed detail. Consciously treading in Flannery O'Connor's literary terrain, and at select moments even approximating that master's art, Justin Tussing has much to say about love, guilt, responsibility, disappointment and, yes, faith. Robert Weibezahl is author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead.