A debut novel about the American road trip, family-style.
Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By EMILY COLETTE WILKINSON
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:
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.