Bad news sells in the ‘The Last Kid Left’
“Fake news” is old news — people have been showering contempt on journalists long before the last presidential election. Nonfiction books like “All the President’s Men” might honor the profession. But in the public imagination — as well as novels, movies and TV shows — reporters are usually bumblers, unethical schemers or some combination of both. That’s just giving the people what they want: Only about a third of Americans today say they trust the news media, according to Gallup, and that trust has barely cracked 50% over the last 20 years. “Bad news sells best,” growled Kirk Douglas’ reporter character in the 1951 movie “Ace in the Hole,” still the archetype of the cynical newshound. “Because good news is no news.”
In his bracing third novel, “The Last Kid Left,” Rosecrans Baldwin, who is based in Los Angeles, complicates those media stereotypes. Much of his story focuses on the media scrum that envelops a small New England town after a double murder, and he has plenty of criticisms to deliver about the media’s “slow-witted sound and fury.” But Baldwin argues that as we combine social media with our instinct for rumor-mongering and America’s ingrained puritanical attitudes, the source of the problem is now everyone; the potential to spread ugliness is as close as a smartphone. Angry about all that “fake news” going around? Sure the source of it isn’t staring you in the bathroom mirror every morning?
But before Baldwin’s novel is about any of that, it’s a straightforward crime story. Nick, a 19-year-old from Claymore, N.H., has crashed an SUV in New Jersey, with the bodies of a Claymore doctor and his wife in the back. Nick is quick with a confession, but Martin, the detective on the verge of retirement, isn’t buying it. (Robbing a doctor for cash? A scrawny teen loading the dead bodies of two adults into a Ford Explorer by himself?) An aimless recent divorcee, Martin heads north to poke around.
There he uncovers a community stewing in ill will, dark secrets and questionable motives. Emily, Nick’s girlfriend, is a 16-year-old from a troubled home who’s been slandered by sexting rumors in high school. Her best friend is a deep well of poor lifestyle advice, especially when it comes to managing the media after Nick’s arrest. Thelsa, a young reporter and Claymore native just laid off from the Village Voice, has a line on a coveted job at the New Yorker; perhaps a longform take on the “Claymore Kids” could help her chances? She knows what gets attention — she was a viral phenomenon herself after writing an article about how she’d never taken a selfie.
“[I]n an otherwise slow but still competitive August news cycle, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet story plus ye olde Yankee township, plus double homicide, plus porno selfies, plus accusations of pedophilia, equals so much lurid delirium,” Baldwin writes. “The Last Kid Left” is “The Scarlet Letter” by way of one of Michael Connelly’s Bosch novels, one part study of herd mentality and one part procedural. Those two pieces don’t always mix well, and minor characters (like Martin’s estranged daughter) are overly encumbered with dense characterization. But when Baldwin trains his focus Nick and Emily’s story, the novel becomes more frictionless and shrewd, exposing how our emotions tend to defy our attempts to apply tidy narratives to them.
“The Last Kid Left” is “The Scarlet Letter” by way of one of Michael Connelly’s Bosch novels, one part study of herd mentality and one part procedural.
Because, after all, Emily is just 16, worldly wise in many ways but uncertain about how to express her feelings for Nick. A few flirty photos that wind up going viral? Whatever — her reputation is shot anyway. “[S]he really had no notion of what she’d done,” Baldwin writes. “Only that she’d felt wild when the idea struck, and that it felt good to follow the wild. Because in the absence of options she needed to create options.”
If that seems condescending toward teens, Baldwin has invented a diverse set of emotionally inarticulate characters. Middle-aged Martin doubts not just his role as a spouse but his sexuality, Nick’s mother is a wayward alcoholic, and sexual abusers are ignored. Emily’s role as a sexy moll, it’s soon clear, is largely a projection of adults who can’t face up to their own flaws. The media just follows their lead. When Thelsa confronts a reporter for publishing a story that slut-shames Emily, he texts her back: “1. news, 2. business, 3. grow up.”
So who can you trust in this murk, when even the major players have a poor grasp of their own motivations? You can practically see Baldwin raising his hand like the smart kid in the back of a second-grade classroom: the novelist! Only the novelist, he argues, has the capacity for deep empathy for a variety of characters in a mix of contexts, plus a command of the broader story that detectives arrive at only imperfectly. Why else have novels if they can’t do that? Baldwin highlights this notion toward the end of the book, when Thelsa makes her “In Cold Blood”-ish attempt to make a “nonfiction novel” out of the Claymore kids, the closest anybody gets to the truth of the matter. (Besides the novelist, that is.)
Within the book, he lets us see that even the most eager reporters miss things. And what power does a nicely turned work of literary nonfiction have against “the whumping of helicopters warming up in Beverly Hills, the sound of William Morris paratroopers zipping up their jumpsuits”?
Baldwin’s novel is a close study of the unknowability of human behavior. But in its portrayal of adolescents roughed up by police, parents and media, it arrives at a common truth: “How mostly horrible life is prior to nineteen.”
Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix. His latest book is “The New Midwest.”
MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 400 pp., $27
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