1. The Dubious Goodness of Guns: American Youth has gun trouble at its heart. But mostly it avoids the simplicities of a gun crime debate. On the one hand, Ted's proximity to firearms pitches him into a bloody awful crisis. At the same time, guns are the site of precious memories of outdoor times with his father and uncle. One of the tragedies of his life is that their old hunting grounds are being milled for housing developments. For an equally intense take on guns and male inheritance, watch the film version of LaMarche’s story 'In the Tradition of My Family'.
2. Good authority, bad love: Ted’s predicament is made worse by his mother’s insistence that he lie about who loaded a certain gun. The problem of his mute and fierce loyalty to both his parents—who piss him off tremendously, nonetheless—is plain to Officer Duncan, a decent local cop. As Ted spirals through arson, bad grades, and self-abuse towards jail time, Duncan takes him out in his car for lunch. ‘Your mother loves you very much,’ he says. ‘Too much, Ted. She’s not seeing this clearly.’ By now the reader is screaming at Ted to fess up. But we’re also aware that, to save himself, he has to betray his mum. LaMarche pitches this perfectly. In David Vann’s terms, Ted now has the problem of the classic divided protagonist—whatever he decides, it’s going to tear him in half.
3. Torn up and Firebombed: This bind is made worse by the fact that Ted is stuck in a place where he can’t easily communicate. Trapped in a lie, he’s also bound by the painful inarticulacy of teenage boyhood. Plus his father is miles away. Barely realising it, the boy aches for his dad’s restoring presence, without ever voicing it: ‘A great fondness for the man welled up in the boy, but it was quickly followed by a tremendous ache—his father was so, so far from him, standing in the backyard as he was, half stoned and torn up as hell. He stood for a moment and waited for it to pass. ’
It’s the same when Ted is aided and abetted by Terry, his best mate, who protects him when his gangmates turn nasty*. When Ted tries to say thanks, Terry tells him to shut up. Instead, he hands him a Molotov cocktail and firebombs a car in a revenge attack. This is where the book’s minimalist surface is revealed to be rich and deep. It’s not that the men of this book don’t have feelings, it’s just that their communication comes out mute and twisted. Sometimes it’s easy to think that spare, active writing of this sort is reductive and unsubtle, but it’s not. It’s the opposite.
*Small is Big: One thing that irritated me was the decision to anonymise Ted in narration as ‘the boy’. Similarly the pan-American naming of the gang ‘American Youth’, which in turn gives the rather grandiose title to the book. These techniques seemed to be striving for the everyman, anytown effect—universalising a story that works best when it's most precisely focused on Ted's immediate, local experience.