Sixteen-year-old Jonah and his fourteen-year-old brother Simon are abandoned by their mother, left in their house without food, running water, or electricity. Their eldest brother is serving in Vietnam, with plans to return home soon, but they haven’t heard from him in months. The brothers soon realize that they have little chance of surviving on their own; so, with ten dollars and some spare clothes, they leave their New Mexico home and head west towards Yuma, Arizona, where their father is incarcerated and soon to be released. Not too far into their journey, the horse they have been riding on dies, so they are forced to make the rest of the journey on foot. At least, that’s what they should have done. Instead, brash Simon, never one to heed his older brother’s warnings, hails down a passing car which is being driven by an unlikely and unsavory pair, a sociopathic man and a pregnant teenage girl. At first glance, the man and the beautiful young girl seem like a couple of unlikely heroes. The boys soon realize, though, that their would-be hero is not what he appears. He has buckets of cash littering the trunk of his car. There’s a stolen Don Quixote statue in the backseat. Oh, and he also has a gun. But he’s not the only one packing heat. The question is: who will use his gun first, and why?
There are some ups and downs with characterization and character development. Some of the characters are well-developed and complex, particularly Mitch, the sociopath, and Matt, the eldest brother. The small glimpses into Mitch’s darker persona are spaced well and provide tantalizing precursors to the larger melt-down, which readers will anticipate but not be disappointed by when it finally arrives. Witnessing the boys’ elder brother’s descent into madness, caused by the horrors he is exposed to in Vietnam, is also intriguing; it adds complexity and character to the story’s sub-plot. I found Jonah, Simon, and Lilly less interesting, though they were the characters that received the most page time. Jonah’s deep, almost paralyzing infatuation with the girl comes about so quickly and without much explanation, making it difficult to believe (aside from a “teenage hormone” perspective). Simon’s anger toward his older brother is also near-immediately apparent, but it is there with little explanation or cause (Jonah seems like a decent guy and hasn’t done anything, that we know of, to make Simon mad at him). There’s the underlying “sibling rivalry” theme which works, of course, but the level of animosity the brothers have toward each other, particularly Simon toward Jonah, doesn’t really fit a “that’s what brothers do” kind of equation. We learn, later in the story, that there has always been conflict but developing that sooner, rather than forcing it to be assumed, could have helped the overall narrative. Still, the brothers’ relationship is engaging, tense and passionate, and ultimately resolved.
The book is formatted as a third-person omniscient narration, but not really. It’s essentially from Jonah’s perspective, written after he has gained facts about events which he could not have witnessed in person, as well as narrating those events which he did witness first-hand. So, the feel of the narration is third-person omniscient because there is little question that everything written down has actually happened but, in actuality, the narration is limited. Because the portions of the novel pertaining to Matt, who is not physically present in the story, are written in epistolary form, Smith is able to get away with this somewhat; however, for the portions witnessed by Simon, Mitch or other characters, one does need to suspend analysis a bit and just let the story flow in order to enjoy it. Chapters are often headed with a character’s name, such as “Simon,” which helps the reader follow-along with who is saying what, when (although, ultimately, the entire story is Jonah’s map/journal). Aside from the somewhat strange structure, I definitely enjoyed the language and the prose – both of which were appropriate to the age level and well-suited to the setting of the story and its tone. The pace is deliciously suspenseful, building slowly but with an almost liquid fluidity, like a syrupy trail winding its way through the desert: sticky, sweet, rich, and satisfying.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
One of the strangest things about the book is that it is difficult to completely like or completely hate any one of its characters (and this, incidentally, is one of the best things writers can do for their stories, in my opinion). There are complexities of personality – inner demons and better angels- associated with each of the characters, and it is up to the reader to practice compassion and understanding when dealing with them, particularly with the protagonist(s). Jonah, the narrator and main character, is not a typical hero. Mitch, the antagonist, is vile but also quite sad. Lilly is tragically desperate, seeking shelter wherever she can find it, with little concern for what it costs her. Simon is angry, tired of being treated like a child but not wholly prepared for the adult world he’s been thrust into, head-first. The book is about family and survival, it is about making difficult choices, sometimes between the lesser of two evils, and oftentimes it is about finding out how to recover after having made the wrong choices.
I pictured the first time we saw the girl, breezing past us in that Lincoln, blond hair whirling around her, her glasses tipped down, her smile, the stroke of her fingers. The teasing.
Simon tumbled the meteorite around in the sweat of his hand. I wondered what it would be like to look down at the earth, to fall, to burn brilliantly in the air like the image of the girl who passed by, kicking back dust like cosmic ash, and could she see that, now; was she up there above us?
We closed our eyes.