Patrick Nathan's novel focuses on how our past can define us. Colin lives in Minnesota with his father, Alan; mother, Diane; sister Heather; and autistic older brother Paul. When Alan accidently shoots himself, Colin shoulders much of the blame. What does it mean to survive a horrific trauma? Can Colin ever forgive himself for the mistake that led to mourning his father's death? Nathan transports Colin through the various stages of self-doubt and self-awareness, and through his numerous quests for love and acceptance. Alone with his mother, Colin sometimes thinks he might just might vomit out his confession.
Plagued by nightmares, Colin turns to his grandfather Quentin, who admits he was ashamed for filing Colin away with the rest of the world's middle school boys. Colin is plagued by images of Alan, the tangled heap of blood and limbs on the basement floor. The two descriptions coalesce: his father in the wooden box and alone in the basement, fanatically writing in his notebooks. In hell's twilight, Paul sees the rock, red dirt, flames and the words his father wrote. Colin considers the images his father sketched, "hell and all its splendor."
Diane seeks independence. She has her own precarious ideas of what she wants to do. She reluctantly visits Tim, a therapist who specializes in healing those struggling with the loss of a loved one. Diane is thankful that Colin is doing well at school, but she worries about Heather's rebellion and Paul's increasingly erratic behavior. Where is the advice to go on living? Aspects of Diane's life are suddenly dragged from their hiding place.
Colin harbors a guilty attraction to his schoolmate Andy. He wonders if his mother can smell the desire on him, "the perverted leftover semen scent of a boy who'd lost all self-control." The more Colin digs into Alan's notebooks, the more space they take up in his head. He can't get beyond the image of Andy's knees shaking as he "licks and gorges like a starved dog." Colin wants Andy to love him, but when Andy ends up selling him out for a laugh, Colin's actions bring the events in this coming-of-age tale full circle.
Colin must learn to follow his heart instead of his head, facing the consequences and triumphs from doing so. At school, he's befriended by Victor, a kindly teacher who hides a sinister attraction underneath friendliness. Sexuality and appearance are the perfume of one while relative security and opportunity are the scent of the other. When Victor drives Colin home, Colin secretly hopes the older man will smuggle him across the country,"undoing his "purity a little more" as they make their way west. As Victor weaves his seductive web, it's easy to see which of the two will suffer most.
One out-of-the-way place leads to another. A year after Alan's death, Colin and Diane finally attempt to reconnect. Their road trip to Los Angeles will be a reckoning. Diane knows her life has been picked up and bent into another shape. She thought that they'd roll into Los Angeles and see it all, right there. Colin sees the city as a tide of exciting sexual experimentation. He thinks of his life here, of going to schools in a world of liberal tolerance, where the teachers reinforce the notion that "you love who you love."
For Colin, home ends up being a "private hell" waiting for him: "It was just a thing inside you...hell's flames hissed and pinched themselves into pillars of steam." Nathan explores the power of grief-stricken relationships in an audacious ending that will leave some readers breathless at the end of it all. Colin is not too young to understand that sorrow and regret--even betrayal--can come in many forms.