A stunning second novel from Silver (No Direction Home, 2005, etc.): the coming-of-age tale of a boy growing up in the California desert with his autistic brother.
In 1978 Ares is 12 years old, a little man in charge of his younger brother Malcolm, who is mute, odd and fiercely defended by their mother Laurel, a counter-culture masseuse. They live in a trailer on the shore of the Salton Sea, a dying saltwater lake in the desert between Palm Springs and the edge of nowhere, a desolate place peopled by misfits and the tenacious few willing to live the hardscrabble life. Laurel practices a sort of loving carelessness with the boys, expecting Ares to fix meals, take Malcolm to the dentist, act as go-between with the school. Ares acquiesces, in large part because of the crippling guilt he feels in regards to Malcolm; having accidentally dropped him as a baby, he thinks he’s responsible for Malcolm’s condition. Laurel believes Malcolm to be perfect and hates the school that wants to test and label him, to steal his innocence with a diagnosis. The school librarian, Mrs. Poole, begins to work with Malcolm at her home, and there Ares finds a world of order and rules, a conventional normalcy as exotic to him as any desert fossil his mother brings home for display. At Mrs. Poole’s he meets her foster-care son Kevin, a 15-year-old with a history of violence who becomes Ares’s first real friend. Silver’s novel is full of looming menace—the pock-marked bleakness of the landscape (used at night for military practice), the violence Malcolm seems capable of (the school finds a shallow grave of birds he’s killed), the very real risk of Kevin, sociopathic and strung out on drugs—but perhaps the most dangerous threat is Ares’s growing adolescent rebellion, which jeopardizes their already fragile family.
Finely wrought characters and an illuminating portrait of the secret world of autism makes for a powerful, often tragic tale.