Every high school has a kid like Erik. He’s sharp, dark, and charming. Add in the fact that he has his own car and impeccable taste in Scandinavian metal, and who better to befriend during the darkest years of your life? Even if he seems a little unhinged, or if his customized tabletop war game, complete with rules that revolve around slaying the entire town, maybe comes off as being too realistic, he’s still a good kid. He’s just misunderstood.
For Josh Reilly, the main character and narrator of Geoff Hyatt’s uniformly excellent coming-of-age novel, Birch Hills at World’s End, Erik is strength and independence. He doesn’t give a shit about what people think of him. He talks back to the kids in letterman jackets who make fun of his hair, his black clothes. And he isn’t afraid to throw a punch in a fight. But when Erik starts to fall in with a group of low-rent meth dealers, and when his talk about acquiring a handgun starts getting a little too serious, Josh has to question how much he actually knows about his best friend, how much of the writing in his “Doomsday Book” is violent fantasy or real-life plans waiting to be set in motion.
Birch Hills at World’s End takes place “between Detroit and nowhere” in the year 1999, when something called Y2K was rumored to have a SkyNET-like effect on humanity. As someone who spent the first 18 years of his life in Western Michigan, who weathered the unbearable winters in conjunction with the chilliness of its conservative politics, who found solace in hard-talking friends, fast cars, cigarettes and heavy metal, I can say firsthand that this book gets all of the details just right. These kids aren’t dumb; they’re not unruly. They’re just fed up with the drive-thru-church culture of the post-industrial Michigan wasteland. They see their peers dropping out of college, coming home and taking dead-end jobs, getting hooked on pills and diving headfirst into oblivion. And it scares them. This is clearly a world that Hyatt knows well. There is real care on display for the characters in this story, for the nuanced feelings Josh feels for Lindsay Kruthers, a beautiful, self-mutilating goth whose army-surplus bag has the words “KILL YOURSELF, NOW” written on it. This is the high-school novel that makes all of the other high-school novels look painfully ironic, silly and out-of-touch.
I wish there were more books like this one, I really do. It was painful to read in the same way that flipping through an old yearbook is painful. But the way the events of this book pan out, the perspective awarded to kids like Josh who are smart enough to question everything and everyone around them, made me appreciate my own life that much more. I knew kids just like Erik. There was even a little bit of Erik inside me. And I still got out.
There’s hope yet.