This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.
It’s an oft-quoted line of T. S. Eliot, but it’s worth trotting out again to summon the mood of The Last Days of California. This intriguing first novel is a self-consciously strange hybrid of National Lampoon’s Vacation, The Myth of the American Sleepover (or insert your favorite teenage-y/loss-of-innocence-y tale here), and the Book of Revelation—though not really, since the biblical apocalypse that inspires the family road trip to California at the heart of this novel never shows up.
Much has been made lately about the disappearance of faith from serious literary fiction. Paul Elie, writing in the New York Times Book Review, offered this rather grim assessment of the state of the novel and Christianity:
This, in short, is how Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time: as something between a dead language and a hangover. Forgive me if I exaggerate. But if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature. Half a century after Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price and John Updike presented themselves as novelists with what O’Connor called “Christian convictions,” their would-be successors are thin on the ground.
Elie’s lament is not the only one: Randy Boyagoda at First Things, Dominic Preziosi at Commonweal, and Alan Jacobs at the American Conservative have all echoed Elie. A lone, outlying optimist, David Masciotra at the Daily Beast, contends that there is faith to be found in fiction, but only in crime fiction—so even he doesn’t really contradict Elie, since crime fiction, good as it is these days, doesn’t quite have the heft to go toe-to-toe with, say, O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965).
Into this post-Christian literary wasteland comes Miller’s well-observed novel. It is modest in scope; that is, if it’s not about faith, then it’s about the deep longing for faith and the things that serve as its paltry proxies in our faithless modern age.
It is the story of a family car trip to join the televangelist who’s predicted the Second Coming and the Rapture in California. Narrating the journey is 15-year-old Jess Metcalf, who is uncertain of herself in that quintessentially awkward teenage way and is overshadowed by her beautiful sister Elise. Elise is a hardened unbeliever (though she does wear the uniform their father has mandated for the family while on their end-times road trip: a black “King Jesus Lives!” T-shirt that she counter-balances with a pair of cut-off shorts so short they’re not visible below the hem of her shirt.
The arch Elise is openly hostile to this road trip and is certain that the end times aren’t about to roll; but Jess isn’t so sure. At one of their overnight stops during the weeklong journey from Alabama, the sisters meet some boys by the motel pool. Elise, who has just discovered that she is pregnant and is not in the mood for male company, tells the boys, in hopes of driving them away, “We’re going to California where we’re going to witness the Second Coming of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. In Pacific Time.” She then proceeds to tell the boys that they, as unbelievers, are going to suffer terrible fires and torments, while she and her family are among the chosen ones.
“Stop,” Jess tells her. “You’re making a joke out of us.” To which Elise responds, “She believes in it.” The boys, one of whom Jess is desperate to impress, look at her with bemused “half-smiles.”
But Jess isn’t actually as sure as her sister describes her to be, as her thoughts in the aftermath of this sisterly humiliation reveal:
Like Elise, I sat in church and felt nothing. I memorized Bible verses same as I did Robert Frost poems in school. But I wanted to believe. I really wanted to. If the rapture was coming, I hoped our parents’ belief would be enough to get us into heaven, like Noah, whose family had been saved because he was a good man.
Jess has little to have faith in if the Rapture does not happen, and much as she wants to believe, she’s begun to question her father’s faith. Her parents are kind but somewhat remote; her father loses jobs with astonishing regularity and evangelizes in a way that convinces her that “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.” Her pastor, whom she calls for comfort after a boozy evening with a strange older boy, reveals himself to be a pervert, and the endless stream of Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Yoo-hoo, giant turkey legs, and funnel cakes that she and her parents devour in the course of the trip (Elise is a quasi-anorexic vegetarian) never seems to satisfy.
In one ugly, forgettable little town where Jess’s family stops at a Waffle House, Jess looks around at her fellow diners and thinks: “[T]hey were all hideous. I could easily live in a town like this.” Jess, full of self-hatred and anxiety and always feeling on the outside of things, finds comfort in ugliness and in stories in which outsiders find their place. This explains her attraction to John Hughes movies:
Molly Ringwald was never pretty enough to be a leading lady, but the eighties were a dream world in which the captain of the football team would leave the homecoming queen for an awkward red-haired girl who made her own clothes.
But Jess is also self-destructive and unable to be true to herself. Having smoked pot for the first time and finding herself numb to all feeling, she ends up locked in a bathroom with an older boy. One thing leads to another: “I didn’t want to do it anymore and wanted to stop him—All I had to say was that I’d changed my mind. . . . I could leave. I didn’t have to do this. I scooted to the edge of the counter and wrapped my legs around his waist.”
Miller’s ability to capture Jess’s lost-ness, her self-punishing streak, her fumbling search for some sustenance beyond McMuffins, iPhones, beer, boys, and her father’s sort of Christianity is the great strength of this slim novel; but like so many contemporary novelists, Miller does not seem to know, in the end, what she thinks of her subject, and so the conclusion is less a coming-together than a petering-out. The Rapture is a no-show, of course, but Mr. Metcalf wins big at the hotel casino, and Elise miscarries the child she didn’t want without her parents ever finding out.
In the final scene, the family sits down to a big room-service breakfast in their expensive hotel room in Reno, which they can now afford on the casino winnings. Jess’s father, who is heavily overweight and diabetic, announces that perhaps he’ll go on that diet his doctor’s been after him about—as he injects insulin into his stomach and tucks into his bacon and eggs. The novel ends with Jess eyeing the last biscuit and container of jelly.
What does it mean, this ending? It’s certainly a whimper where I’d have liked a bit more of a bang, but Miller’s in good company in choosing inconclusiveness. Contemporary fiction abounds with such whimpers (The Corrections, anyone?), and Miller’s novel does seem, at least, to be considering the possibility that modern angst and faithlessness are connected.
The Last Days of California isn’t a second coming for faith and literature, and it could not do a round with Crime and Punishment; but it is the debut of a promising new voice, a voice that describes the painful longing for transcendence and connectedness with compelling vividness and candor. And maybe the point of Miller’s anticlimactic ending is that the apocalypse has already happened and Jess and her family and all of the rest of us are wandering in the wasteland. But if so, I still want to know where we go from here.
Emily Colette Wilkinson is a writer in Washington.