When I first heard about Mary Miller’s debut novel “The Last Days of California,” which centers around the Metcalf family’s road trip to — you guessed it — California, I was expecting something along the overplayed lines of “family drives each other crazy but loves each other more by the time they arrive.” Instead, in this novel, the family never quite reaches their destination.
Eyes usually roll at the phrase, “Life is about the journey, not the destination,” but in the writing and storytelling skill Miller bestows upon this tale, the journey is truly fulfilling in and of itself.
Though this road trip features cheap roadside motels and copious amounts of fast food, it is not quite a vacation. Told from the point of view of 14-year-old Jess Metcalf, the novel relays the tale of a family headed to California not for family fun, but to be the first people to see the rapture and end of the world. Jess’s father, John, a gambling addict who recently lost yet another job, insists that their family must be among the first to see it happen – inciting a trip across three time zones to California.
For narrating a book whose premise rests upon the end of the world, Jess worries noticeably little about the apocalypse. As any typical teenager would, her thoughts focus more on Elise, her beautiful, rebellious and secretly pregnant older sister, and on the boys that the two of them meet at various points in the trip. Romantic involvement ensues, which both enchants and confounds Jess and spawns heartbreaking commentary on her own weight and appearance. Jess constantly compares herself to the other women in the novel, from her older sister the waitress at Waffle House, picking at their flaws and wondering about their pasts.
Seeking validation, she goes along, at times, with her father’s vague ideas but is confused by his extremism and occasional hypocrisy. While Jess wants to obey her parents, she wonders if everything her dad insists to be true actually is and struggles to line up her own views of faith with her father’s. It does not make sense to her, for example, why the family is staying in cheap hotels if her father will never have to pay off the credit card bill.
At the same time, she displays a deep love for her family and a longing to connect with them – even when tensions are high from being trapped together in a car for four days. Jess is likewise trapped somewhere between being a child and an adult, from believing everything she is told to deciding her beliefs for herself.
Miller does an excellent job of exploring this continuum as well as providing an interesting commentary on faith and on “growing up” in today’s world. Maybe this is a spoiler, but the “last days” never come. What does is a poignant and hilarious portrayal of modern society and adolescence.
Miller’s prose alone would make this a worthwhile read; her wit and fresh observations make it a fun one. At times heartbreaking and a bit angsty, the novel is incredibly relatable, especially considering its focus is on an event that sounds more than a bit extreme to most readers. Much of this relatability stems from Jess’s aforementioned struggles with family, faith, self-image and relationships, which are raw and honest and sometimes hilarious. Through these eyes, the novel surveys the modern American South with precision and humor.
If you are or have ever been a teenager, you’ll relate to Jess.
Mary Miller will be reading an excerpt from her “The Last Days of California” during Thacker Mountain Radio at 6 p.m. Thursday at Off Square Books.