The God of War [With Headphones]

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The year is 1978. Ares Ramirez, age 12, lives with his mother, Laurel, and his younger brother Malcolm in a trailer at the edge of the Salton Sea, an unintentionally man-made body of water in the middle of the Southern California desert. It is a desolate, forgotten place, whose inhabitants thrive amidst seemingly impossible circumstances.

Where birds fly by day across the desert sky, by night government fighter planes and helicopters make training runs using live ammunition, and...

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The God of War: A Novel

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The year is 1978. Ares Ramirez, age 12, lives with his mother, Laurel, and his younger brother Malcolm in a trailer at the edge of the Salton Sea, an unintentionally man-made body of water in the middle of the Southern California desert. It is a desolate, forgotten place, whose inhabitants thrive amidst seemingly impossible circumstances.

Where birds fly by day across the desert sky, by night government fighter planes and helicopters make training runs using live ammunition, and an anonymous dead body floats in from the sea. These events inspire Ares, on the cusp of his adolescence, to enact elaborate fantasies of mortal combat. His membership in a troubled family marks Ares as a casualty of a different kind of war. Malcolm, age 7, is mentally handicapped, and his mother chooses not to do anything about it.

Ares' struggle with the burden of responsibility — to himself and to others — draws him into a world of drugs, violence, and sex that he is not prepared for, launching him into a very personal battle for his own identity, one that has a lethal outcome.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Scott Brick lends his talent to Silver's multilayered coming-of-age novel. The story unfolds from the point-of-view of 12-year-old Ares Ramirez and his hardscrabble '70s childhood in a remote Southern California desert community, and much of the focus surrounds Ares's relationship with Malcolm, his mentally disabled six-year-old brother. Malcolm's autistic symptoms render him uncommunicative, which poses a tremendous challenge for Brick, as Silver chooses to portray Malcolm's mannerisms and behaviors mostly through Ares's reflections. Yet Brick rises to the occasion, with compelling results. Brick delivers especially heartfelt performances as the two principle female characters: the brothers' bohemian mother and an enigmatic school librarian. The novel's structure may not lend itself to an easy transition to audio, but as the action transforms from preteen angst to dark explorations of violence and family dysfunction, listeners will appreciate Brick's ability to navigate the terrain. A Simon & Schuster hardcover (Reviews, Feb. 18). (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Twelve-year-old Ares Ramirez has a life as unique as his name. His mother, who has a taste for men who don't stick around, raises Ares and his mentally handicapped brother, Malcolm, on the shores of the isolated Salton Sea in the California desert. Ares is saddled with far too much responsibility while his mother flits through life as a free spirit, leaving him to watch over the brother Ares thinks he damaged by dropping him accidentally as a baby. Ares looks elsewhere for the attention and acceptance he's not getting at home, finally finding it in the kindly librarian who tutors Malcolm and her dangerous foster son, Kevin. Ares's new friend leads him on a path of destruction with a tragic end. New Yorker contributor Silver (No Direction Home) writes a dark and devastating coming-of-age story. Even though most readers will not have lived the tough life that Ares has, they are sure to relate to his search for a place in the world. Highly recommended for most collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ12/07.]
—Leann Restaino

Kirkus Reviews
A stunning second novel from Silver (No Direction Home, 2005, etc.): the coming-of-age tale of a boy growing up in the California desert with his autistic brother. In 1978 Ares is 12 years old, a little man in charge of his younger brother Malcolm, who is mute, odd and fiercely defended by their mother Laurel, a counter-culture masseuse. They live in a trailer on the shore of the Salton Sea, a dying saltwater lake in the desert between Palm Springs and the edge of nowhere, a desolate place peopled by misfits and the tenacious few willing to live the hardscrabble life. Laurel practices a sort of loving carelessness with the boys, expecting Ares to fix meals, take Malcolm to the dentist, act as go-between with the school. Ares acquiesces, in large part because of the crippling guilt he feels in regards to Malcolm; having accidentally dropped him as a baby, he thinks he's responsible for Malcolm's condition. Laurel believes Malcolm to be perfect and hates the school that wants to test and label him, to steal his innocence with a diagnosis. The school librarian, Mrs. Poole, begins to work with Malcolm at her home, and there Ares finds a world of order and rules, a conventional normalcy as exotic to him as any desert fossil his mother brings home for display. At Mrs. Poole's he meets her foster-care son Kevin, a 15-year-old with a history of violence who becomes Ares's first real friend. Silver's novel is full of looming menace-the pock-marked bleakness of the landscape (used at night for military practice), the violence Malcolm seems capable of (the school finds a shallow grave of birds he's killed), the very real risk of Kevin, sociopathic and strung out on drugs-but perhaps the mostdangerous threat is Ares's growing adolescent rebellion, which jeopardizes their already fragile family. Finely wrought characters and an illuminating portrait of the secret world of autism makes for a powerful, often tragic tale. Agent: Henry Dunow/Dunow, Carlson, & Lerner
The Barnes & Noble Review
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." --Mark Sarvas

Mark Sarvas' debut novel, Harry, Revised, has been sold in a dozen countries around the world. He is host of the literary blog The Elegant Variation and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781433273056
  • Publisher: Findaway World
  • Publication date: 1/28/2009
  • Format: Other
  • Product dimensions: 4.60 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Marisa Silver

Marisa Silver made her fiction debut in The New Yorker when she appeared in the inaugural "Debut Fiction" issue. Her collection of stories, Babe in Paradise, was a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. Silver's work has been included in Best American Short Stories, and she is also the author of the novel No Direction Home. She lives in Los Angeles. Visit her on the Web at

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Read an Excerpt


Where I grew up, people kept their business to themselves. I lived in the desert, far enough east of the big cities of Southern California to render them meaningless to my daily life, closer to the border of Mexico than most people would have liked to admit. People did not so much choose to live in that parched frontier as they ended up there. It was a place generally ignored because it did not have much to offer, and so it was a place where you could be left alone. The desert's plants and animals thrived in seemingly impossible circumstances, against heat and drought and other odds. The same could have been said of its people, too.

On a spring afternoon in the late 1970s, a boy I knew died of a gunshot wound. The boy was of no consequence. During his life he had been tossed from home to home like the object in a game of hot potato, while one or another well-meaning soul tried to handle him, then passed him on when the real heat of his nature became untenable. It would be hard to make a case for his goodness given the deceitful and sometimes violent things he did. And as much as I was captive to the bright, angry flame of him when I was young, I cannot, even now, easily point to his value except that he happened to be alive for a time through no fault or talent of his own.

The news of the shooting made its way from the local newspaper to the big city papers in San Diego and Los Angeles where it was reworked and retold so that our story became unrecognizable to us, and we read the paragraphs incredulously as if we couldn't imagine people who lived like that. The story captured readers' imaginations not because of the boy who was shot, but because of mybrother, whose mute, some would say insensate, presence occasioned the killing. What captured people's attention, what had the phone ringing in our trailer in Bombay Beach until my mother tore it out of the wall, what provoked an intrepid young reporter from San Diego to make his way to our overlooked town, was the fact that my brother could not talk or read or write, was more at home with objects than people, and could not look a person in the eye or suffer a stranger's hand on his narrow shoulder without screaming as if he had been branded. He could not, finally, tell any judge or jury what had happened that day to cause such violence. He was a boy locked up in himself. Now there are words for the kind of child my brother was, labels and therapeutic regimens and even drugs. But thirty years ago, in the remote place where we lived, science had not caught up to us, and diagnoses of abnormal behavior, when they were made at all, ran to generalities. My brother was simply "backward," as if he were a sweater someone had put on wrong. It was left to others to speak for him, to tell our story to the police, judge, and the newspaper reporters, who then turned the information inside out, so that the boy who died was forgotten, my brother became the unwitting victim, and I became a hero. But I was not a hero that day.

Copyright © 2008 Marisa Silver

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 21, 2010

    Better than I originally thought!

    The summary doesn't really do the book justice. This is an amazing book! You experience the guilt of a young brother and the confusion of puberty. It's really a buildungsroman, as in it's basically a story about growing up. I warn you it is kind of slow to start, but once you get a few chapters into it, it's hard to put the book down! I definately recommend God of War by Marisa Silver.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2010

    Kept my interest!

    Fascinating & learned a lot

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  • Posted June 29, 2009


    The story surrounds the life of a twelve year old (Ares) and his diificulties of dealing with his brother who is autistic. Ares is going through puberty and he is battling boundaries as well as a host of other life circumstances.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2008

    An unforgettable story of the joys and burdens of family ties

    The gripping story of 12 year old Ares Ramirez,his loving but troubled family scratching out a life at the edge of the barren Salton Sea, and his desperate efforts to find his own path in a haunting and desolate landscape. A must for lovers of the mystical Southern California landscape and anyone caught in the loving net of close family ties.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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