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In haunting debut novel, an idyll that turns sour

The Best People in the World
By Justin Tussing
HarperCollins, 336 pp., $24.95

It is the spring of 1972, and 17-year-old Thomas Mahey has fallen in love with his history teacher. The high-schooler has lived his whole life within the floodwalls confining the current of the Ohio River in Paducah, but he bursts free -- physically and psychically -- when Miss Lowe returns his affections. With a local vagrant they have befriended, the illicit couple flee Kentucky for Vermont, where they aspire to live an idyllic life ''outside the economy."

In his debut novel, ''The Best People in the World," Justin Tussing achieves a significant literary feat, managing to keep the reader engaged while portraying lives characterized largely by idleness and inertia. Thomas, Alice, and self-proclaimed anarchist Shiloh Tanager settle into an abandoned house near Burlington, where at first they swim in ponds, plant a garden, and frolic in their newfound freedom.

But as happens for so many who try to escape the past, these three find their new life fraught with liabilities they didn't expect. The garden goes dry. When winter comes and their wood runs out, they resort to burning banisters and beds. To make a few bucks, Thomas is reduced to stealing Christmas trees from a local farmer, suffering a hatchet wound in the process.

As dire as their external circumstances are, however, it is desolation of an emotional nature that permeates the novel, which is written so beautifully as to make the reader forget that for chunks of the narrative, nothing happens. ''On sunny days, when we remembered, we opened the curtains to let in the light. At night, or when the sky was overcast, the curtains remained closed. Days passed unobserved," Thomas tells us.

Much of the book's action takes place inside his adolescent heart, which he remembers in retrospect from the vantage of the man he becomes. His affair with his 25-year-old teacher educates him in the feelings of desire and desperation: ''I wasn't on the run. Every moment with Alice I was home."

Shiloh Tanager, the third member of the fugitive triangle, brings them into contact with a band of people who live communally and refer to themselves as DWG (''Down with God"). They were once ''the best people in the world," Shiloh says, but now they include Parker, a compatriot of Shiloh's, who is such a dismal excuse for a human being that he inspires Thomas to wonder whether Shiloh's friends merely seek destruction, or if they actually cause it. In the end, Parker's relationship with Shiloh leads to a fatal event that may or may not be an accident, and to the end of the threesome's tenure as roommates, confidants, and fellow survivors.

Tussing is a master at describing emotion -- and elevating it -- in the most mundane of situations. Thomas, Alice, and Shiloh glimpse Lake Champlain while driving, and Tussing writes, ''When the lake disappeared behind a low hill, it drove us crazy. We were like the mind of a suicide who cannot be consoled, impatient even after the bullet is on the way." At another point, the trio is entrusted with the care of a 4-year-old girl whose parents are hiding from tax authorities. Thomas considers the child as she is sleeping: ''At that precise moment I felt capable of protecting her, but just on the other side of her nap, the rest of her life waited. . . . Sooner or later she would wake up . . . and what would it mean to her, of all the faces in the world, to be confronted with mine?"

He is a young man who forges his strongest bonds with objects, noting that when his grandfather died, he was free of grief until he learned that his mother gave the grandfather's silver shears to his hospital roommate: ''It galled me to think of the stranger idly trimming his chin hairs with those fine scissors."

Alice is a similarly affecting character; after the initial surprise of witnessing her act on her attraction to young Thomas, the reader comes to sympathize with her aimlessness and anomie. First her lover depicts her aptitude for educating: ''Everything we took out of the class was a testament to her will. She wasn't a graceful teacher; her lessons didn't unfold before us. She taught like someone might dig a ditch. She spaded the soil of our ignorance and pitched it out."

At times while they are on the lam together, she serves as a kind of mother figure to Thomas, insisting that he call home to let his family know that he is safe. She is his first and most profound love. From the perspective of time and distance, he reports, ''And so I carry my sweet Alice with me. These many years later I can see her in the way I pour milk; when I whisper to a friend, I pretend their breath could be her breath. . . . No, she would not recognize her boy; days and nights have changed my face."

Throughout the novel's narrative, Tussing weaves the adventures of two men who investigate, for the Catholic Church, reports of miracles. Readers do not see the connection to the rest of the story until the book's end, but these vig-nettes provide poignant relief to the spiritual bankruptcy comprising the main characters' lives.

''The Best People in the World," which was excerpted in The New Yorker, announces the arrival of a talented young voice on the contemporary fiction scene. Readers interested in what author Tussing refers to as ''intentional family" will no doubt feel rewarded by this rich story about the intricate boundaries of love.

Jessica Treadway is the author of ''Absent Without Leave" and ''And Give You Peace." She teaches at Emerson College.

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