The violence that haunts America’s schools is most effectively analyzed in this spare, prescient debut, originally published in 1999 in France (where its Maine author taught) as La Dernière Sentinelle.
The story’s a deliberate imitation of Camus’s stark classic L’Etranger, narrated in a similarly flat, emotionless voice by a seemingly harmless young man who indiscriminately murders. He’s Philip Carmichael, a 17-year-old high-school basketball star, beneath whose façade of good looks and high achievement we feel the struggles of a youngster who can’t relate to his extroverted buddies and teammates, his mostly absent mother (who talks family closeness, but isn’t around much) or geographically distanced “biological father,” his mercurial coach or impatient girlfriend. Harnum doesn’t exactly conceal the deadly surprise hidden in Philip’s school locker (the reader figures it out early on), but he does take us deep inside the psyche of a loner who truly doesn’t understand why he feels so detached and friendless, or the consequences of his (quite literally horrific) actions, even after imprisonment and trial give the decisive rebuke to his unreachable “seeming indifference” (“For some reason, a part of me inside hadn’t thought this was all that serious”). Harnum was surely mistaken to give so much space to opposing trial counsels’ closing statements (all the old arguments about a violent culture breeding violence, the need for personal responsibility, and the like are dutifully trotted out, but add nothing new to the ongoing debate); you can feel the author stretching the pages to novel-length. Conversely, his portrayal of Philip grows steadily stronger, more moving, and more revelatory. And when, at the very end, we see him in his jail cell idly playing violent virtual-reality computer games, a real chill settles over the reader.
Exile in the Kingdom is no L’Etranger, but it’s a potent little nightmare image of the way we live now and the extremities our flesh are heir to. Welcome home, Mr. Harnum.