American Youth
Phil Lamarche
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Buy *American Youth* by Phil Lamarche online

American Youth
Phil Lamarche
Random House
240 pages
April 2007
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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In Phil Lamarche's gritty, stark American Youth, Teddy LeClare lives with his mother in a small New England town that in recent years has been hit by recession. Donna teaches at the local high school and supports the family, while Teddy's father, Pete, an insurance salesman, has been forced to find work in far-off Pennsylvania.

Pete hopes that the sale of their house will one day give them the much-needed financial break they've been looking for, even as Donna anxiously hopes for a change in the economy. Meanwhile, Teddy, when he's not angrily disposing of the for-sale sign in front of their house, is set restlessly adrift.

Prone to boredom and experimentation and unable to connect with his father, Teddy battles the demons of adolescence by spending his days trolling the local woods with his best friend, Terry, helping him to make Molotov cocktails. It is through his friendship with Bobby Dennison and his brother, Kevin, that Teddy's life truly takes on a new meaning.

One afternoon, while showing Bobby and Kevin how to load a gun, Teddy momentarily becomes distracted by his mother as she sweeps outside. A loud clap reverberates throughout the house, and Teddy returns to the living room to discover Bobby laying on his back with bullet in his chest.

"He wanted it and I wasn't done. He pulled it," Kevin screams as he shoves the gun at Teddy and runs from the room. Teddy tells his mother that it was he who showed them the gun and then stuffed it back under the cabinet, but it was actually Kevin who loaded the gun and pulled the trigger. When Duncan, a family friend and local police officer begins the investigation, he finds that Kevin is saying the exact opposite.

Panic-stricken, Donna swears her son to silence, certain that even if it was an accident, there's a serious possibility that charges of negligence may be filed against them by Bobby's mother. In a town where fires are constantly stoking the rumor mill, Pete returns from Pennsylvania, ordering Ted not to say a word: "if someone asks you just shrug it off, pretend you don't know what they're talking about."

Teddy sticks to his father's policy of not speaking about the shooting or indeed of what is to come, even though his mind constantly grinds through the events surrounding that terrible day. At school, Teddy keeps his head down and goes about his business, his days a mixture of paranoia and fear.

His self-enforced silence is broken when he connects with Peckerhead Jackson and George Haney, two boys who, in their idiosyncratic dress code of black suspenders, white T-shirts, and pressed khakis, inform him they're part of an elite club, a sort of underground vigilante force called American Youth.

"We're all red-blooded Americans here and we like guns too," they tell Teddy. This ragtag group spends their free time rattling out drug dealers, participating in pep rallies and organizing protests against anything that defies what they see to be good, wholesome and true. In their world, even vandalism is a form of protest.

In beautifully bleak prose, Lamarche presents Teddy's life exactly as it is as the boy tries to blunt the pain of Bobby's accident while also coping with the seductive fascination of American Youth. Lamarche paints an austere vision of a society where the gun culture is not just endemic but also holds an alarming generational influence. It is, after all, Teddy's Uncle John who proudly displays his home collection of firearms for all to see, including the impressionable Teddy.

In the end, Teddy realizes that the doctrine of American Youth is a sham, their efforts to preserve a status quo nothing but a pretense and a fraud perpetrated by a bunch of childishly dangerous adolescent pseudo-fascists. On the downside, though, perhaps it is Teddy's instinctive obsession with guns that is truly dangerous, a timely reminder of how the American gun culture has perhaps become so embedded and entrenched in the youth of its society.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2007

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