This ambitious first novel by Jesse Relkin begins with 16-year-old Max arriving in Los Angeles from his hometown of Bend, Oregon to enter an in-patient drug rehabilitation facility. For the few days before he is due to report to rehab, Max stays with his Aunt Mercedes, her children, Erin and Mikey, and their nanny, Shannon. Max is determined to make the most of his few remaining days of freedom by getting in some partying while in LA. It turns out that his aunt, a mortgage broker who may be about to lose her job, her license, and perhaps her own freedom because of illegal business practices, has drug issues of her own. In a chance but powerful encounter, Max and Mercedes end up with an opportunity to save one another.
This is a character-driven novel with multiple points of view. We view events from the points of view of Mercedes, Erin, Shannon, and, eventually, Max. Max, the most sympathetic of all the characters, is largely ignored by both the narrator and the other characters during the middle part of the novel. Yet Max remains the heart of the story in more ways than one. His honesty and humor are a refreshing contrast to the self-deception and self-absorption of the other characters.
Max had never really fully kicked an ass. He was a pacifist or whatever you call it, and he was against Bush’s war like anyone else. He didn’t like violence in real life, only in his games and in movies. But it was important to know that he could kick an ass, rip somebody a new one, crush his fucking skull, if he wanted, if he was prone to that sort of thing, and he could take comfort in that and then hug a tree or something and move on.
The resemblance to Holden Caulfield is unavoidable, but Relkin creates a Max that is so much his own character that I was never tempted to roll my eyes and say, “Oh no, not another Holden.”
Relkin’s skill with characterization is evident in Erin as well. Relkin totally nails this bright teen trying to navigate a world that offers little opportunity for self-exploration while demanding self-expression.
Then she thought about thinking about death. She could have thought about it then, but she didn’t feel up to it, and anyway, Meghan was picking her up in ten.
Erin is a sensitive youth caught up in a culture too superficial to maintain existential despair for longer than it takes to merge onto the freeway. Each night she kisses her life-sized poster of Kurt Cobain and somehow feels that she has understood some deep anguish. Max, on the other hand, manages to see glimpses of hope and beauty even from his own, much darker, depths.
As Max sinks further into drug dependency, he tries to recall the feeling he had when he first connected with literature, when he discovered the poem “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening,” but he cannot. “It had lost its meaning. The poetry was gone.” And this is, I suppose, the central line of the novel—a novel that is less a condemnation of a culture that can make even poetry superficial than a lament for the sensitive children who are trying to survive that culture.
Relkin has perhaps attempted a few too many literary tricks, and some seemed gimmicky, particularly the metafiction. One of the POV characters, Shannon, is telling the story to a friend—named Jess—who is writing a novel based on Mercedes and her family. Shannon feeds Jess information and details for her novel. I think The Nothing Place would have worked better without this conceit. “Jess” in the background didn’t really add anything to the story. The authorial intrusion seemed just that, intrusive, as well as pretentious. I was reminded of a comment by Flaubert: “An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.”
And Relkin’s presence is far more successful when it is not visible. She has a gift for language as well as for characterization, and manages multiple points of view and a complex time line with grace. She does a beautiful job of letting the language she uses present both character and setting while conveying the deeper themes of the novel, as she does in this passage describing snatches of conversation heard as young people are leaving a concert:
After the show, they walked past the chatter of the groups smoking and waiting for their friends. And she went—did I—she was—wasn’t he—she was like—so shit-faced—and then the dumbfuck—coming from Silver Lake—got the keys—in The Valley—and she was—Oh my god, oh my fucking God—and there was a unity to the broken pieces of speech, which swelled together into one great conversation, like when you flip through the channels late at night on TV, and the clips of talk on the separate channels blend into a single incomprehensible, mind-numbing communication.
In this context of this novel, that passage is a commentary on far more than the current teenage argot. Relkin manages an excellent characterization of our times as well as of her characters.
I was somewhat disappointed by the ending, probably because I had come to care for the characters so much that I wanted more resolution. I wanted more hope than the novel was able to provide. Throughout the story various characters comment on the fact that you can’t quote song lyrics in books, so I won’t quote “Eleanor Rigby” here. I’ll just say that in the end, really, no one was saved.