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.