California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea, sits at 227 feet below sea level and was created by accident. A 1905 project to divert water from the Colorado River to irrigate the Imperial Valley went awry, and for two years, water flooded the Salton Sink, resulting in (depending upon whom you ask) a desert wasteland or a miraculous ecosystem that continues to draw eccentrics to its shores. In a February 2002 essay for Outside Magazine, William T. Vollmann memorably depicted the North Shore:
… the beach comprising not sand but barnacle shells, fish bones, fish scales, fish corpses, and bird corpses, its accompaniment an almost unbearable ammoniac stench like rancid urine magnified. Fish carcasses in rows and rows, more sickening stenches, the underfoot crunch of white cheek-plates like seashells — oh, rows and banks of whiteness, banks of vertebrae; feathers and vertebrae twitching in the water almost within reach of the occasional half-mummified bird.
But amid the putrescence and decay, a family caught his eye, “the children running happily, sinking ankle-deep in scales and barnacles, nobody expressing any botheration about the stench or the relics underfoot.” It’s not stretching the conceit too terribly far to imagine Vollmann’s watchful eye falling on the shades of Ares Ramirez and his brother Malcolm, the two young boys at the heart of Marisa Silver’s engrossing new novel, The God of War. But, as we’re told within the first pages, happiness will not be the lot of these boys. Violence and tragedy are gathering and, as one of Silver’s characters avers, the desert “will kill everything valuable.”
Common themes of family, guilt, dysfunction, and shame informed many of the stories in Silver’s debut collection, Babe in Paradise (2001), as well as her first novel, No Direction Home (2005). These concerns remain present in The God of War, but the story is primarily a sustained meditation on questions of agency and volition; the acceptance (or refusal) of responsibility and the apportioning of blame. Indeed, her damaged cast has settled in this remote backwater in the futile hope of controlling their own fate beyond the reach of government and society. That they largely fail suggests how impervious to geography and inescapably human the so-called human condition really is.
The story opens in 1978. Twelve-year-old Ares (narrating some 30 years after the fact) is largely responsible for the care of his mentally handicapped six-year-old brother, while their mother, Laurel, works as a massage therapist to support the family, whose home is a ramshackle trailer in Bombay Beach. Malcolm’s condition reads like severe autism: He neither talks nor reads nor writes and refuses to be touched. “Now there are words for the kind of child my brother was,” Ares explains. But not so 30 years ago: “My brother was simply ‘backward,’ as if he were a sweater someone had put on wrong.”
Laurel, a damaged free spirit who escaped the clutches of religious parents, is mistrustful of all authority and adores her boys, divining a strange mystical purity in Malcolm. She’s convinced that he has a vibrant inner life, whereas Ares is not so sure. When Laurel interprets Malcolm’s smacking lips as a request for juice, Ares wonders, “But what if she was wrong? What if Malcolm wanted the opposite of juice? What if he didn’t want it at all? What if the fall had knocked desire right out of him?”
The falls Ares refers to is his great secret, his great burden: When Malcolm was only a year old. Ares dropped him and he hit his head, and now Ares nurses untenable guilt, convinced he is the cause of his brother’s disability. (Given the accident that gave birth to the Salton Sea, this resonant choice seems especially apt.) His guilt is at least a piece of what begins to drive him away from his mother, and Silver is especially good at depicting that strange in-between place during adolescence where love and loathing for parents commingle uncomfortably:
… I was trapped between loving her and another feeling that had recently introduced itself and that I had no name for but that felt alternately like hatred, like disgust, or pity, or worse: longing.”
The anger and disgust are slowly fed as Silver introduces complications and ratchets up the tension. Whereas the scope of No Direction Home wove several disparate plots together, the canvas of The God of War is narrower and tighter, resulting in Silver’s most effective work to date. Although the story takes a little longer than it should to get going, once it does it unfolds in precise, gripping measure.
Laurel’s itinerant lover Richard, who leaves during the hot summers, returns, and Laurel’s attendant neglect of her boys causes Ares’s budding resentment to simmer. And when Malcolm is required, after an outburst in which he bites a teacher, to study in the home of the school librarian, Mrs. Poole, Ares is given a tantalizing glimpse of what “normal” life might be like. In stark contrast to the anything-goes atmosphere at home, Ares is mildly rebuked for snooping and finds it “oddly gratifying to be the object of her precise censure; I had strayed and been contained, and beneath my embarrassment, I felt a relief I had never experienced.”
One of Silver’s deftest pieces of characterization occurs when Mrs. Poole hands Ares a pamphlet called Plants of the Southern California Desert to assist him in a weeding assignment. “Anything in there, you throw out.” But she proves unable to hold the merciless march of the desert at bay. Ares begins to depend on his visits to Mrs. Poole, until the return home of her troubled 15-year-old foster son Kevin from a juvenile care facility upends the domesticity and provides Ares a very dangerous outlet for his growing amorphous anger. The combination of a found handgun, drugs, and the hopelessness of unloved — or wrongly loved — youth combusts with deadly inevitability.
Silver is adept at depicting the anger that flecks this novel like bloodstains — Kevin, Richard, Laurel, Ares all nurse rages of varying degrees of volume and clarity. And given Silver’s previous experience as a film director, it is unsurprising that the book is full of vistas as memorable as the one Vollmann describes. Silver may not always be fully convincing narrating as a male: How likely is the adult Ares to say “Like me, I felt he was a bearer of secrets, and this made my time with him exquisitely charged”? And the story can occasionally unfold a bit too precisely in a New Yorker fashion that’s become easy to parody. (Birds begin to fall dead from the sky just before the story takes a deadly turn.) Nevertheless, Silver has reached a mere 170 miles beyond the limits of her Los Angeles home and delivered a vivid dispatch from another world, utterly different yet all too familiar, in which her battered family wants nothing more than to keep “safe from the incessant harms that came of living.”