I remember reading Justin Tussing’s story “The Laser Age” in the Debut Fiction issue of the New Yorker earlier this year. Something about his writing really spoke to me, so I was excited when I received a copy of his novel The Best People in the World from which his short story was drawn.
It’s 1972 and narrator Thomas Mahey seems cast adrift in his small town in Paducah, Kentucky. Two events change Thomas’ life: falling in love with his new history teacher Alice, 8 years his senior and meeting the town misfit Shiloh Tanager, a socialist transient. The trio flee to rural Vermont, stopping first in New York to visit one of Shiloh’s old haunts. They end up squatting in an old farmhouse for the winter, attempting to live off the land. Each of the novel’s 5 sections opens with a chapter involving 2 Vatican emissaries investigating religious miracles. You’re not meant to get the connection until the end of the book, as characters and identities are unmasked. After the efforts at growing food fail and the cold snowy winter blankets the farm, the trio are cut off from the rest of the world, hence the title I believe.
Tussing writes in shorter sentences that give his novel a sense of immediacy even though he also uses the past tense. Thomas Mahey is looking back and telling us the story. But he loses focus somewhere around the middle. The first part that made up the short story in the New Yorker I found beautiful. As the novel moves on however, I started losing interest in the characters. Alice is complicated but I don’t care enough about her to wonder why. Shiloh Tanager remains the most interesting and plot driven of the three. Thomas exists to tell the story years down the road. Tussing is a great writer, but I found this first novel lacking. I am hoping that his future efforts won’t disappoint.