cover image The Last Days of California

The Last Days of California

Mary Miller. Norton/Liveright, $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-87140-588-3

The Metcalf family may be road-tripping toward the Rapture in California in Miller’s debut novel, but the cross-country journey marks the beginning, rather than the end, of an examined life for her 15-year-old narrator, Jess. Between discovering that her prayer-happy father has lost his job and finding the positive pregnancy test that her 17-year-old sister, Elise, took in a Biloxi hotel bathroom, young Jess has plenty on her mind, as middle America speeds past the windows of the family’s Taurus. With so much in flux, she starts asking questions—about their matching black “King Jesus Returns!” T-shirts, about the purity ring her father gave her, and about herself. Meanwhile, Jess and Elise set a course for debauchery in roadside hotels, drinking and partying with any boys they can attract. It’s an apocalypse-driven ripening for Jess. Beyond the well-crafted coming-of-age narrative, Miller gets every little detail about the South—from the way the sky greens before a storm to gas stations where Hank Williams Jr.’s “Family Tradition” blares—just right. But it’s Jess’s earnest, searching voice, as she contemplates her parents, the trip, and their values, that lingers after Miller’s story has finished. In Jess, Miller has created a narrator worthy of comparison with those of contemporaries such as Karen Thompson Walker and of greats such as Carson McCullers. (Jan.)