Cast away

James Gibbons is associate editor at the Library of America.

"LOVELY ugliness," wrote William T. Vollmann, "this is the Salton Sea."

That melancholy oxymoron just as aptly describes Marisa Silver's new novel, which takes place near the notorious Southern California lake where millions of fish and birds have died over the last several decades. As nearly every observer of the Salton Sea has remarked, the breathtaking desert landscape surrounding the shrinking lake belies its toxicity as agricultural runoff increases its salinity to dangerous levels. Squalor and beauty, corruption and purity, human pettiness and elemental grandeur -- the drama that unfolds in "The God of War," as befits its setting, offers a stark intermingling of forces irreconcilably at odds with one another.

Geography exerts as powerful an undertow in Silver's tale as in a book by Willa Cather or Mary Austin. Landscape is character, and character is fate. Ares Ramirez, the 12-year-old at the novel's heart, has been raised in a trailer by his mother, Laurel, with his half-brother Malcolm, who is mentally disabled and cannot speak. The boys, six years apart in age, have never met their fathers. Laurel, fiercely independent, suspicious of outsiders and sensual, embodies the spirit of her rugged home: "She possessed the sea as though it were another of the half-orphaned children she had collected around her like Malcolm and me, the crippled fragments of the earth she had chosen to keep close while rejecting all the rest," Ares says. "For the sea was a castoff, too."

As a mother, however, Laurel seems desperately adrift. To Ares, she can be cruel, inattentive and disastrously uncommunicative. Her relationship to the younger Malcolm, by contrast, is one of nearly primitive communion. Refusing to speak of him as disabled, she is scornful of medical and psychiatric diagnoses -- "Labels are for boxes," she tells Ares, "so you never have to look inside them." Paranoid about institutional intervention, she resists efforts to send Malcolm to treatment. But it is Ares who must care for his half-brother, and this role pulls him in conflicting directions within a tight circuit of primary emotions: anger, humiliation and fear.

Envious of Malcolm's oblivion -- "to have fear you had to care about things never changing from the safe and predictable way they were, and it was not Malcolm who cared about this, but me" -- Ares chafes at being a second mother to him and entertains adolescent fantasies of escape and renunciation. His desire to flee the family's precarious nest is also fraught with guilt: Having accidentally dropped Malcolm on his head as an infant -- an event searingly replayed in his memory -- Ares believes he is responsible for his half-brother's condition and fears the moment when Laurel will finally condemn him.

The familial atmosphere is suffocating, and one in which things hidden and unsaid take on ever greater power the longer they are concealed: "Every moment of my life was pregnant with the possibility of her finally saying everything I knew was true," Ares recalls. "But until that time came, I remained trapped in my guilty life, which was like a suck of air taken in before speaking, a lifting of a foot before a step."

"The God of War" deliberately eschews suspense: A murder the novel slowly moves toward is matter-of-factly mentioned on its opening page. Silver nonetheless creates a creeping sense of inevitable cataclysm as the story becomes both a study of Ares' transformation out of childhood and an allegory of the devastation wrought upon the Salton Sea region, with Malcolm playing a key symbolic role.

This air of thickening menace is enhanced by the narrative's setting in 1978, well before the spectacular mass deaths of wildlife at the Salton Sea in the 1990s but at a time when the area's imminent environmental catastrophe had eerily begun to manifest itself. Scores of tilapia carcasses wash ashore toward the end of novel; a week later, area residents discover the remains of pelicans and other birds that had eaten the fouled fish.

Mostly, though, the novel is fueled by the irrepressible, if at times mournful, energy of Ares' growing physiology. Laurel's maternal aura has been shattered, and his once-unthinking attraction to her body has yielded to more complex feelings, hazardous in their vagueness. The disarray of her life no longer seems the natural measure of things but reveals, instead, her negligent disregard for boundaries, which Ares begins to crave with a nearly erotic hunger.

Indeed, one of the fresher aspects in this coming-of-age story -- a glutted genre, after all -- is Ares' crush on Mrs. Poole, the well-meaning, rule-conscious librarian who takes Malcolm under her wing to try to teach him to speak. The usual path of the adolescent in such tales, as in life, is to move from repressive parental strictures toward greater freedom, but Ares has been given few taboos to break. Exploring Mrs. Poole's house during one of Malcolm's sessions, he is awed by how neatly everything is arranged, and "could feel her hand on each object, placing it just so. . . . [T]he twilit room felt as if a spell had been cast on it." Rarely has order seemed so enchanted.

Others also offer Ares paths away from his knotty family triad: Laurel's on-again-off-again boyfriend Richard and the Pooles' foster son Kevin, whom Ares comes to idolize. Although he is crucial to the plot, Kevin is a fairly standard-issue juvenile delinquent, and he leads Ares to a group of even more perfunctory lowlifes. But perhaps Kevin's banality is precisely the author's point. In one of the framing chapters set roughly in the present, a 41-year-old Ares reflects on the enigma of adolescent attractions: "[A]s much as I was captive to the bright, angry flame of [Kevin] when I was young, I cannot, even now, easily point to his value except that he happened to be alive for a time through no fault or talent of his own."

"The God of War" is not without flaws. The scenes of trailer soap opera between Laurel and Richard become tiresome very quickly, and I wonder about Silver's decision to have Ares narrate the story from a settled, distanced vantage. The evocations of Ares' confused turmoil are unfortunately mixed with retrospective observations that neatly parcel out his "life" and "self" as abstractions: "I felt betrayed, not by them but by my younger self who had naively accepted everything and had not looked beyond the near horizon of my life to see how insignificant I was"; "I felt trapped between a life I had once enjoyed and one that felt miserable and lonely and bitter."

On the whole, however, the novel is a moving exploration of fraying family bonds deftly balanced with an elegiac parable, one whose desert backdrop lends resonance to Silver's ruminations on the mysteries of violence and loss, love and rage, guilt and blame. Their secrets, she suggests, will always remain mute. *

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