cover image Hurt People

Hurt People

Cote Smith. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $15 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-0-374-53588-9

In Smith’s tense, haunting debut novel, expanded from his noted short story in One Story, the year is 1988 in Leavenworth, Kan., a nexus of four prisons, where we meet two brothers, nine and 11, whose parents have recently split. The boys move with their mother into an apartment complex, where they become obsessed with its swimming pool. Their father is a police officer who is busy trying to track down a killer who has just escaped from Leavenworth Prison, which sets off a panic in the community. Left to their own devices at the pool, the boys meet Chris, a charismatic stranger, and fall under his spell. Their harried mother is so distracted by money problems and her sleazy boyfriend, Rick, who manages the golf course where she works, that she is unaware of her sons’ secret friend and his growing influence over them, especially the older one. Once Chris’s true nature is revealed, readers will be reminded of The Night of the Hunter for its depiction of two youthful innocents forced to confront implacable evil. Smith has his story narrated by the younger brother, who at times seems to have a too-mature grasp of all the bad adult behavior surrounding him. Although the premise is a little convenient and the narrative sometimes feels padded, the author compensates with razor-sharp characterizations, a richly evoked period setting, and the sense of a community forever living in the shadow of fear. Agent: Claudia Ballard, WME Entertainment. (Mar.)