When I started this book I thought it was going to be a cute, snarky, coming of age update to Catcher in the Rye, but it turned out to be more like a cute, snarky, coming of age update to Dante’s Inferno. Certainly there was a nihilistic edge right from the beginning that should have clued me in, but I so wanted it to be just a modern Salinger I ignored it (and attributed it, moreover, to the inevitable reflection of our current, perhaps more cynical, age.)
17-year-old Billy Kinsey lives in a rich enclave of fake people, his parents being his two primary exemplars of this type of hypocritical denizen. He has pretty much felt alone since his twin sister Dorie died of leukemia when they were eleven. Now he can’t sleep, because Dorie comes to him in dreams, presumably to accuse him of killing her since his transplanted bone marrow didn’t help her. [It is odd that Billy, who is otherwise so intelligent, even having a photographic memory, would not know that the bone marrow of an identical twin would not in fact be able to kill the cancer cells.] Billy also has a port-wine hemangioma on his face, adding to his sense of alienation and of being an outsider.
When a new kid comes to his high school, “Twom” (pronounced, portentiously, like tomb) Twomey, who is tattooed, pierced, and, as it turns out, dyslexic, Billy gravitates to him after the jocks try to put the very different Twom in his “place.” Soon their little group is enlarged by Ephraim, a loser-ish computer hacker nerd, and Deliza, a sort of walking oozing-sex-machine who is attracted to bad-boy Twom. The four of them begin to escape from real life by breaking and entering into (but not stealing from) the mansions of rich neighbors. The police call the perpetrators “The Night Visitors.”
But a catch has developed in Billy’s progress down through Hell. He has started a relationship with Gretchen Quinn, former BFF of his twin Dorie, and as unrealistically perfect as Dante’s Beatrice. With Gretchen, Billy occasionally experiences happiness, but he doesn’t believe it:
“The world suddenly seems like it has the potential to be an okay place. And this bothers me because I know deep inside the world isn’t and never will be.”
As he explains at another point:
“I swear, if alien ants came to earth, they’d look around at the lack of planning and foresight and the poverty and the greed and selfishness and the ignorance and the intolerance and the overall wasted opportunity that, other than the occasional rare glimmer of light, is the basic human condition, and they’d say, Whoa! Whose great idea was this?”
Billy, gifted in so many ways, personifies at least part of what this potential alien scrutiny might reveal, in that he lacks planning, foresight, and wastes his opportunities. And as the group comprised of Billy, his fellow travelers, and their families spiral down to the innermost circle of Hell, no one seems to have learned anything.
Discussion: This is a disturbing story with lots of moments of cleverness, and a few oddly-dropped plot threads. It keeps you turning the pages, in the way in which people can’t turn away from newsreels of crashing planes or collapsing buildings. It also gives you a lot to think about, including all the bad things that your teenagers might be up to without your knowing about it.
Published by St. Martin’s Press, a division of MacMillan Publishers, 2015