When 17-year-old Thomas Mahey leaves Paducah, Ky., with the history teacher he has fallen in love with and an anarchist vagabond named Shiloh, the three are not so much fleeing their present as rushing toward a future they don't understand. The Best People in the World chronicles that future unfolding - how the trio's faith in one another and their journey propels them forward, but not quite far enough.
The novel, set in 1972, centers on life in an abandoned house the group discovers in rural Vermont. Thomas finds moments of purpose and lucidity, a sense that, living off the group's meager savings, "All we needed to do was stay in love and take care of the garden."
But their experiment in anarchy disintegrates: After burning too much wood too early in the winter, they are reduced to burning banisters and basement stairs; Shiloh's mysterious past comes back in ever-creepier ways; and the promise of the new life they seek evaporates.
Justin Tussing's novel is witty, well paced, and inventive. The characters' quiet fear of their own desperation is lovely, and the tension between Shiloh and the lovebird pair of Alice and Thomas - who are eight years apart - is nicely drawn. The group's optimism is both believable and poignant; as they gather their housewares at the five-and-dime, they are "flesh spread thinly over a framework of desire. We weren't just buying clotheslines, washcloths, and dish soap - we were buying our future, and at bargain prices."
Yet the early days of Thomas's and Alice's courtship suffer from a shallow foundation. Almost as soon as they're keeping company, they flee Paducah. And as they drive with Shiloh to Vermont, it's not quite clear what they're running from. Even Thomas seems at a loss to explain it, months later when he ponders writing home.
He asks: "How to explain that Alice and Shiloh and a car had been enough to lure me away from the home my parents had kept for me?" Alice and Shiloh "hadn't left anything behind, while I had left people who loved me, and all because of the way it felt to hold someone's hand and the magic of watching her sleep...."
The book's plotline tends to get tangled in its own eccentricities - Shiloh's mysterious friend, the appearance of his former lover, the strangers who come and go in the driveway.
And one of the main subplots - a deadly construction project in the basement that Shiloh and his friend Parker have dreamed up - is never fully explained. Sections of the novel are separated by short chapters on two men who investigate Catholic "miracles," but even with a few tangential references to these interludes, their connection to the rest of the story is never quite clear.
That said, Tussing writes beautifully. Long, cold days of hibernation in the bare farmhouse are lovely, as "All day we breathed that scalded air. That empty brightness outside couldn't reach us. We lived in a vacuum. Heat and sound didn't communicate the way they used to. We were left with degrees of friction. We rattled off one another like billiard balls. We rang like crystal. Nothing could change until those frozen rivulets on the windowpanes ran like meltwater."
And when Thomas's perspective jumps forward a few years so that he's looking back on the winter, his longing is both restless and resigned. "Days and nights have changed my face," Tussing writes. "And I have buried my mother on a cold day in May when yellow-throated violets hid in the green, green grass. And wandering about I have placed my favorite faces in crowds that could not hold them, and only to suffer the disappointment."
Tussing's debut novel, though imperfect, is a rewarding read. And if some questions are never fully answered, and some subplots are a little vague, there is plenty of beauty here, too. "The Best People in the World" is ultimately a tender meditation on family, belonging, and sacrifice in a spare and lovely "world of unadorned things."
• Christina McCarroll is a former Monitor editor.