Robert Harnum, Author . Hardscrabble $22.95 (165p) ISBN 978-1-58465-148-2

Originally published in France and Canada (as La Dernière Sentinelle) to critical acclaim two years ago, this slim novel remains pertinent in its topic—teenage gun violence—but the psychology is facile, the plot predictable and the characterizations hollow. Philip Carmichael attends an upper-class Maine high school where he is the star basketball player, one of the best in the state. But no one sees the red flags: he has no father figure and his mother's live-in boyfriend just died; his mother is seldom home; his uncle's a gun freak; he's nasty to his girlfriends; he plays violent video games; his good grades are slipping. Then, at a friend's prompting, Philip brings his uncle's AK-47 to school. When caught with the gun, he panics and opens fire, killing two police officers and two students. More than half of the book is dedicated to Philip's trial; the prosecution is demanding the death penalty. The American-born Harnum sensitively and unsentimentally examines Philip's alienation and ennui while raising serious questions about responsibility, victimization and the American legal system. Unfortunately, his generic style leaves Philip with an utterly flat voice: he follows dull observations ("The morning was cold, real cold") with even duller tics ("And I don't know why"). That very soullessness—the horror of it—is the point, of course, but it doesn't sustain the novel. In a bizarre afterword that is both condescending and defensive, Harnum implies that the book is better in the original French: "the classical, poetic, clinically cold beauty that French can attain... English simply does not have." He then grouses about the book's rejections by American editors, suggesting that the subject matter was too hot for them to handle. In fact, Harnum simply has not done it justice. (Nov. 1)

Reviewed on: 10/15/2001
Release date: 09/01/2001
Genre: Fiction
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