John Hart established himself as a major literary talent with his first two novels: the critically acclaimed debut THE KING OF LIES and the award-winning DOWN RIVER. If he had never written another published word, he would be remembered for these. But his latest work is of such power that it threatens to eclipse the majesty of its older brothers. Hart writes as if he is channeling William Faulkner, or perhaps collaborating with the Cormac McCarthy of the BLOOD MERIDIAN era.
The omnipresent voice of THE LAST CHILD is a rich but world-weary one. It tells the story of 13-year-old Johnny Merrimon, made wise, tragic and, yes, old beyond his years by the abduction of Alyssa, his twin sister. The novel begins just after the first anniversary of this horrific event, and the reader bears unflinching and painful witness to the manner in which the disappearance has dramatically changed Johnny’s life. Blame and guilt have ripped Johnny’s family asunder, running his father off and driving his mother into the abusive arms of a powerful real estate tycoon. Johnny’s few remaining assets include a bike, a map, and a canny intelligence that cause him to mentally tower over most of his classmates (and even some adults). His presence or absence at school has little to do with furthering or hindering his education; instead, he spends as many days as he can searching for Alyssa in houses off the beaten and respectable path of his hometown, researching the whereabouts of sex offenders in the area.
Johnny has two allies in his quest. One is Jack Cross, a boy his age who “smokes and drinks like a grownup.” The younger brother of an up-and-coming local baseball player and the son of a newly minted police detective, Jack is a quietly complex character, a Huck Finn to Johnny’s Tom Sawyer. The other is a local police detective named Clyde Hunt. There is an odd similarity between Hunt and Johnny, in that Alyssa’s disappearance and Hunt’s failure to find her have reduced Hunt to a shell, ruining his marriage and leaving his career as a police detective hanging by a thread as his obsession with finding Alyssa is paid with the neglect of his remaining caseload, and earns nothing other than Johnny’s barely concealed contempt that results from his failure to do so. He is not so much unbound by rules as he is adept at simply ignoring them. For Johnny’s part, he demonstrates a canny though believable skill set, acquiring maps of the city from the county assessor’s office and eliminating --- or gaining --- potential suspects one by one, even as Hunt attempts, however ineffectually, to dissuade him from his quest.
It is a second tragedy --- the disappearance of another young girl --- that delineates the stark differences between Johnny and Hunt, even as they work toward similar goals. Hunt is determined that another girl will not be lost on his watch. For both, however, the disappearance is a dark opportunity: solving the new mystery may also lead to a determination concerning Alyssa's fate, a question that has haunted every moment of the past year for both of them. And for Johnny, his reckless, forbidden and, in some cases, illegal investigation has provided him with clues that lead to the resolution of the newest abduction, even as it ironically buries the closure of his sister’s case even deeper.
The key may lie with a childlike giant who may or may not be guilty of multiple murders, or with a pervert who may or may not be a respected town citizen. It is the darkness beneath the veneer of the town --- the secret sins, great and small, the cruelties subtle and sledge-hammered --- that together ultimately constitutes the most chilling aspect of THE LAST CHILD. As Johnny notes to himself early on, things aren’t right. And it is Johnny, a man barely and prematurely out of childhood, who ultimately lays the secrets bare.
Reading Hart’s prose is like being led, willingly, into a secret part of hell by your dream lover while a corner of your brain, the part that contains your sanity, whispers that you really shouldn’t go there. On the one hand, you’re afraid to turn the page; on the other, THE LAST CHILD is one of those rare books that you wish would go on forever, such is the power and the majesty of Hart’s storytelling.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 9, 2010