A slim and bleak coming-of-age debut, set during the 1980s among orphans in Chicago.
Elliott deliberately lures the reader into interpreting the novel autobiographically by including an Author’s Note that succinctly summarizes the contents. Elliott, like narrator Paul, “left home at the age of thirteen and after a year sleeping on the roof of a convenience store on Chicago’s Northside, was made a ward of the court and channeled through various large and small group homes and institutional learning facilities.” Paul’s narrative begins in an apartment building’s hallway as he lies barely conscious and with slashed wrists; it ends about three years and a handful of group homes later as he resolves to make a new life in California. In between, there isn’t much structure, another reason for the book’s resembling autobiography: It moves from one episode to the next, eschewing conflicts that might offer dramatic shape while collecting mournful impressions of other lost teenagers Paul encounters along the way. The loose storyline and Chicago setting remind one of an Augie March with less richness of detail or variety of character. A few of Paul’s friends provide genuine interest, most engagingly Tanya (she burned her house down with her parents in it), with whom Paul runs away and settles, albeit briefly, in a suburban toolshed. While the two are separated early on, their relationship becomes the closest thing to a central plot event, though even it never quite comes to a head. Still, it would be difficult to read this narrative without being occasionally—and genuinely—moved by Paul’s abandonment and desperation. The refractory tone overall is captured by the epigraph: “Names have not been changed to protect the innocent. There are no innocent.”
As fiction, it’s desultory; as memoir, though fascinating and sad, it makes the reader wish for the shaping of a novel.