Young Man With a Gun

By Phil LaMarche
Random House, 224 pages, $21.95

“He took a breath and drew back the action. He looked at Kevin and Bobby as if to say, Like this, and let the bullet into the chamber. He fisted the ball on the end of the bolt, slid it forward, and locked it down. It felt beautiful—the slide and clack of steel coupling with steel. He exhaled and looked at them. They smiled.”

In the opening pages of this slender, important novel, the gun that will change so many lives is loaded. It’s “the boy”—for so he’s usually called in the novel, though his name is Theodore—who loads it. He’s 14 years old, and the gun, a .22 rifle, is kept legally in his house in southern New England. He’s never fired it, although he wants to, and on the day of the tragedy that sets American Youth in motion, he still does not. After loading it, he leaves the room for a moment, and in that moment the two brothers who are his friends tussle for the gun—and one accidentally shoots and kills the other.

I first read this novel, as it happens, the day before Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 27 students and five teachers at Virginia Tech. What the plainly written words I’ve quoted above made me recall with visceral precision was the pleasure I too had taken, many years ago, in closing the action of a rifle home on a single bullet. I recalled the dull sheen of the barrel, the satisfying weight of steel and wood, the pressure against my shoulder, the smell of cordite. It’s not a pleasure that gives me pleasure to recall, but it’s one that is clearly evoked in this unflinching novel, which takes as its subject a single, seemingly small alteration of history and gives its readers new ways to think about those split seconds in which everything can change.

The novel traces the trajectory of the boy’s life in the aftermath of the accident: a human, erratic trajectory of denial and belated courage. American Youth takes its title from the fascistic high-school gang who adopt the boy as their hero because his plight fits, as they see it, with their right-to-bear-arms agenda. Phil LaMarche is especially good on how powerful the desire for acceptance can be. He presents us cleanly with a sequence of dilemmas we might all hope we never have to face, and makes his readers—there should be many of them—consider how they might act in such circumstances. Sound moralizing and hokey? It isn’t, and that’s no small achievement. Mr. LaMarche never preaches; he simply follows that old fashioned rule of writing, “show, don’t tell”—to remarkable, moving effect.

American Youth is a book that demands to be devoured: a short tale full of suspense. It’s best read in dread and in hope—dread and hope that apply not only to Theodore, but to us all in an unstable, well-armed world.

Erica Wagner is the literary editor of The Times of London. Her first novel, Seizure, has just been published by Norton. Young Man With a Gun