Sixteen-year-old Finn Easton feels he’s an alien – perhaps a product of the chaotic universe through which he has figured that the earth careens at 20 miles a second, but certainly an outsider in Burnt Mill Creek, CA, where he lives with his family. Finn attributes this sense of alienation to being “trapped” in Lazarus Doors, the science-fiction cult classic written by his father, who has given Finn’s name and identifying characteristics to the book’s major character. In fact, however, the major influence in his life is a “ridiculous” accident that literally re-shaped him: a dead horse slid off a truck that was carrying it across a bridge to the knackery, and it fell 300 feet (five seconds down in a world moving at 20 miles a second = 100 sideways miles) into the canyon where Finn and his mother were walking. Finn’s mother was killed, his back was broken, and he spent the next two years in the hospital, emerging with a re-constructed spine, an odd scar, no memory of his life before age 7 – and epilepsy, which doctors hoped he might outgrow. He hasn’t outgrown it. Each of the book’s carefully-crafted formative incidents – Finn’s primary encounter with his first love, Julia Bishop; the magnificent shadow play she performs for him to express her love; the exploration of a ruined penitentiary with Julia and Cade Hernandez, Finn’s best friend; the rescue the boys perform in the book’s climax – is followed by an epileptic seizure that re-attaches Finn to his past and to Lazarus Doors. Following the rescue, however, Finn realizes neither his father’s book nor his own epilepsy can determine his future, and he begins to craft his own script.
The book, a semifinalist for the National Book Award, is the ninth novel by the author of “Winger.” It should become a coming-of-age classic that will be compared to “Huckleberry Finn,” a book which (along with “Slaughterhouse Five”) resonates in its overtones. Teens will find it hilarious; adults may find it a bit shocking. The portrayal of a father-son relationship complicated by celebrity, disaster, and disability is deepened by quotations from Lazarus Doors, which reveal that Finn’s father, writing in the wake of the accident, bitterly mocked divine justice as a gigantic hoax that threatened to devour the human race. The tour de force of the novel, however, is its narrative voice, which brilliantly captures the sexual and social doubts of a “disabled” teenager while juxtaposing them with his sophisticated concept of a universe: the Big Bang, followed by a billion-years-old “knackery” of reconstituting atoms, described with the eloquence of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Similar skillful contrasts appear in the dialogue, which captures teen intelligence even as it demonstrates the limitations of teen-speak; and the deathless loyalty that lies behind Finn’s friendship with sex-obsessed, tobacco-chewing, hard-drinking Cade Hernandez. The narrative’s seeming chaos is deliberate, held together by symbolism deftly and unobtrusively handled; the Southern California scenery is strikingly described; and the novel’s depth, insight, and humanity are exceptional.
“100 Sideways Miles” is available through Wilmington’s Pettee Memorial Library, Dover Free Library, Whitingham Free Public Library or Bartleby’s Books in Wilmington.
Laura Stevenson's most recent novels, Return in Kind and Liar From Vermont, are both set in Wilmington.