four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
29-July-Aug-2007
user_rating: 
0

A-American YouthIn a working-class New Hampshire town, two brothers from a new, upscale housing development visit teenage Ted LeClare. They are soon bored by his modest home, so Ted shows them one special thing: his father’s handgun. When Ted leaves the room, one boy accidentally—and fatally—shoots the other. Convinced by his mother to lie about his involvement, Ted, still blamed for the boy’s death, becomes the focus of a bitter public debate over gun control. Overwhelmed by guilt, he burns himself with cigarette lighters, joins a group of neo-Nazis hell-bent on preserving the blue-collar identity of their town, and watches helplessly as his life spins out of control.
Random House. 240 pages. $21.95. ISBN: 1400066050

Los Angeles Times 5 of 5 Stars
"This is one of the most savagely beautiful, emotionally devastating and accurate readings of what it means to grow up in our soul-starved homeland that I’ve ever read. … Sentence by sentence, the author has created a heart-squeezing chain of violence and consequence that makes us care about the characters, who suffer and live in the pitiless rural landscape of a Johnny Cash song." Jerry Stahl

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"What sets American Youth apart from other books that have explored similar themes—beyond LaMarche’s writing, which is crisp and propulsive—is that it presents a world in which the teen years are fraught not only with varying degrees of emotional violence but actual violence, as well. … This is a small book, devastating in its particular portrayal of a boy who, under various pressures, approaches collapse." Ethan Rutherford

New York Daily News 4 of 5 Stars
"This is how a teenager can grow into a fascist, and LaMarche so fully pictures Ted’s world we share everything except the air he breathes. … We stumble with Ted, fear for him, too, as LaMarche makes a dark childhood an almost beautiful place if you weren’t the boy in pain at its center." Sherryl Connelly

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"LaMarche sets us back in high school with all its cliques and cabals, its secret cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, the rage and submission that motivate teenage boys in their angry, hormone-driven relationships with one another. … [He] writes in a clear, crisp, procedural prose, almost claustrophobic and airless, akin to Hemingway with almost none of that writer’s lyricism, but his story is so riveting and toxic that it held me every step of the way." Sam Coale

Buffalo News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The strength of Teddy’s story lies in the deep underpinnings of his character. Teddy is far from a hapless, flaw-free hero—he’s a young man who’s troubled in many ways long before the fateful day of the shooting." Charity Vogel

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While marred by some confusion of aim and occasionally unconvincing dialogue and characters, it often manages to be emotionally powerful and more than a little unsettling. … This is a novel that never goes in easily predictable directions, and Ted is a sensitively drawn protagonist, whose reaction to the situation he finds himself in is achingly real." Charles Matthews

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The author is so intent on swift storytelling that his characters lack much depth. … Built of spare, solid materials—dead-on dialogue everywhere and emotional depth charges strategically placed—it has a timeless, inevitable feel." Dan Cryer

Critical Summary

"There exists, of course, no more defining American image than death by bullet," notes the Los Angeles Times. In his debut novel, Phil LaMarche ties this all-too-common image to timeless themes (coming of age, class struggle) as well as more contemporary ones (violence in children, gun control, fascism). What results is a gripping narrative that says as much about the incongruities of 21st-century America as it does about one boy thrown prematurely into the maelstrom of adult life. Despite a few flaws—some academic dialogue attributed to teens, some cardboard characters, and the practice of referring to Teddy and his family as "the boy," the father," and "the mother"—LaMarche has delivered a powerful, emotionally devastating novel.

Cited by the Critics

American Skin | Don De Grazia (2000): This raw, volatile novel follows its teenage narrator on the road to manhood within the violent skinhead subculture of 1980s Chicago.