Seventeen-year-old Thomas Mahey is much loved by his mother, Mary, and his stepfather, Fran. They share a good home in a Paducah, Kentucky, but lately Thomas has been feeling restless and unmoored. Mary continually plagues Thomas with her noble intentions, and Fran hounds him with wounded empathy. Impatient and eager, he strikes up a friendship with Alice, his twenty-five-year-old high school history teacher and incongruously becomes her lover.
At the same time, Thomas befriends Shiloh Tanager, a misfit and vagrant who rents a room in Alice's apartment. Hiding a mysterious past, Shiloh is a self-confessed anarchist who spends most of his time waxing lyrical about the tortured state of the world and imparting psuedo-meaningful statements to Thomas and Alice such as "I'm here to rebuild my heart."
The three of them are drawn to each other and eventually run away in Alice's beat-up old Plymouth, first stopping in New York where they meet Parker, a shady drug manufacturer who tells them to head north and check out a group of "salt of the earth" people living in Vermont. The group is actually a self-governing, self-reliant and self-centered commune of hippyish Biblical fundamentalists led by a fiercely dictatorial man named Gregor. The group spends most of their time spouting Bible verses bible while bathing naked in the local river together.
Gregor takes a liking to Alice because she is an educator and can teach their children about the prophet; Shiloh is considered an asset because he can make and fix almost anything. Deciding this isn't for them, the trio leaves the commune and ends up squatting in a deserted farmhouse in rural Vermont. Their life is idyllic and they learn to survive on limited finances, enduring the petty power plays and squabbles that inevitably take place between them. Things go well for a while, but as the bleak Vermont winter descends on them, tempers fray and the tight-knit bonds that have formed between them begin to fracture.
William, Alice and Shiloh are stuck in the wilderness searching for answers. Thomas sees himself both as a runaway and a dropout, and there's no doubt that Thomas loves Alice, but he often sees them as irreconcilable wills: "I was destruction and she was preservation." Alice and Thomas are sidetracked by passion, which begins to annoy the older Shiloh, who wants to be coy, responsible, clever and controlling. He thinks he knows what is best for people, seeing himself as person of vision with either the intelligence or the charisma to make people see only what he wants them to see.
Questions of identity permeate this novel as author Justin Tussing examines our perceptions and how they compare to reality. The tale is jam-packed with countless religious and spiritual allusions which add to the overall lyricism and charm of the story. Thomas, Alice and Shiloh's world is far from glamorous, and along the way they make some poor choices; Shiloh in particular is constantly haunted by weight of his past, a love affair that went wrong and burdens his efforts to accomplish something in the present.
With all their flaws, Tussing characters are extremely compelling and sympathetic, and he manages to bring the world of Seventies counter-culture to life. The Best People in the World is really an offbeat road tale, eccentric and loveably kooky; these people are left-of-center misfits intent on existing at the edges of society. The only problem with this novel is that Tussing tends to sacrifice compelling narrative for sharp character development. Perhaps with a more tightly focused plot, Tussing could have more fully realized his vision for this trio of oddball misfits.