Mary Miller’s debut novel spills over with good, solid writing. The Last Days of California is about a family road trip starting in Montgomery, Alabama, with its destination California, and possibly even beyond. The Christian rapture is what draws them to California, hoping to save some people along the way, though by page two we suspect the father is not so holy in spite of his grand scheme. Jess, the 15-year-old narrator, says of her father, “He didn’t really want all 7 billion people on the planet to be saved. We wouldn’t be special then. We wouldn’t be the chosen ones.”
Early on, the reader suspects the family may be up to more than holy pursuits. Though the father is in the driver’s seat, there’s much more going on in the back seat between the two sisters, two years between them, armed with smart phones and convenience store candy. Their mother is the one who collects and receives the trash from all the wrappers and leftovers, staying at least minimally connected to her offspring and her husband, whose appeal seems to have deteriorated over many years of marriage. In the meantime, the two girls share lots of secrets, one being a probable pregnancy proven by several ominous pink strips.
Our narrator, consumed by teenage self-loathing, feelings of inadequacy, and the fact that her sister is beautiful and she is not, fantasizes about how to experience what she has only heard about from her wilder sister. The story moves through spare and perfectly pitched dialogue as the car moves through shoddy towns indecipherable from one another, each with the same big box stores — the equivalent of purgatory, American-style. Days Inns, Waffle Houses, and sundry convenience stores are the landscape that mark the journey. Jess reveals her adolescent longings, fears, hopes, dreams, and envies through a constant inner and outer dialogue that make this book so readable and hard to put down.
As the family continues the journey, they often stop to gorge or pick at meals only the most nutritionally challenged would order. French fries, sundaes, and diet cokes are a great part of the feast. The reader wonders how a man and woman who aren’t working can afford such expenses, especially when they stop at a casino. The questions mount as the journey progresses. Or does not paying the credit card bill make any difference to a family who will be whisked away as the rapture plucks the worthy from all the rest?
This is much more than a story about teenage angst. I see this short novel as a family love story, a sort of “Modern Family” of four. Though the cast is a scripture-deluded father, a rather worn out mother and two daughters who may have lost their tickets to Paradise, Jess will often hold her mother’s hand or ache with a daughter’s sad love for her father and remain forever loyal to her sister. Bravo to you, Mary Miller, our own homegrown Jacksonian.
Join us Thursday, January 30th as Mary Miller presents
The Last Days of California, signing at 5:00, reading at 5:30.