By Jodi Picoult
Atria Books, 455 pp., $26.95
Throughout her prolific career, Jodi Picoult has never shied away from hot-button issues. But with her new "Nineteen Minutes," a Columbine-like tale of a disenfranchised young man and the tragedy he wreaks on his local high school, she takes on a frightening, timely trend "ripped from the headlines." It's a provocative cautionary tale that should hit close to home for every community. We are so far beyond naively claiming, "That could never happen here."
At its most compelling, "Nineteen Minutes" is a vividly disturbing narrative about what can happen when we least expect it and how little time it takes for life to be turned upside down. "In nineteen minutes, you can mow the front lawn, color your hair, watch a third of a hockey game. You can bake scones or get a tooth filled by a dentist. You can fold laundry for a family of five. Or, as Peter Houghton knows . . . in nineteen minutes, you can bring the world to a screeching halt."
And though she doesn't dwell on it, Picoult vividly recounts the event itself, slowly revealing the tragedy's details from a variety of perspectives -- Peter's; his onetime best friend, Josie; Josie's mother, Alex, who is a judge; Peter's bewildered, beleaguered parents.
But at its most convincing, "Nineteen Minutes" is less a narrative about a horrific event than an insightful deconstruction of youthful alienation, of the shattering repercussions of bullying, and the disturbing effects of benign neglect. Seventeen-year-old Peter wasn't a bad kid. He came from a loving home; his mother, Lacy, a warm and generous nurse/midwife; his father, a pleasant if distracted scientist. They were all still reeling from the death of Peter's brother, Joey, just the year before, but all were dealing in their own way.
However, Peter's long, slow journey toward his desperate act began years before, as early as kindergarten. On his very first day, he was tagged as somehow different -- inferior, smaller, weaker, less socially comfortable. His lunchbox was thrown out the window of the school bus, that day and days after, beginning a long reign of systematic bullying that reaches a tipping point and eventually explodes.
Picoult tries to illuminate some of the attitudes that create bullying. Some are inadvertent, like an unwitting slight viewed as betrayal. Others, disturbingly purposeful. Josie, who as a young child was Peter's best friend but pulled away as they got older, is the character in the book who walks the line between compassionate understanding and fear of becoming ostracized herself, knowing popularity and acceptance can hinge on a single decision -- whom do I identify with? She claims, "We're all like Peter. Some of us do a better job of hiding it. What's the difference between spending your life trying to be invisible, or pretending to be the person you think everyone wants you to be? Either way, you're faking."
At one point, Josie says to her boyfriend, Matt, "I don't get why you have to pick on Peter Houghton . . . Just because you don't want to hang out with losers doesn't mean you have to torture them, does it?"
The cruel but popular jock responds, "Yeah, it does. Because if there isn't a 'them,' there can't be an 'us.' " The comment displays a rather improbable sense of self-knowledge for the character, but with it, Picoult hits the nail right on the head.
Picoult also illumines what average parent s must feel like upon learning that they no longer know the child they brought into the world. In many ways, Peter's actions are as devastating to his mother, Lacy, as to the parents of the victims. "She'd lost her son, too, that day. Not just physically, to the correctional facility, but personally, because the boy she'd known had disappeared, swallowed by this beast she didn't recognize, capable of acts she could not conceive."
When all is said and done, "Nineteen Minutes" can make us think twice about all the little injuries we may thoughtlessly inflict and all the telltale clues we may see in those on the receiving end one time too many. And sometimes it seems as if it's almost a matter of luck. As Alex reflects on her own good fortune, "Life was what happened when all the 'what-ifs' didn't, when what you dreamed or hoped or -- in this case -- feared might come to pass passed by instead." We should all be so lucky.