In the 1980s, I went to an East Coast boarding school that was made notorious by a gang-rape of a drunk girl by a group of boys, a few years before I attended. It happened in the dorms after lights-out, and dozens of kids who weren’t participants knew about it and did nothing, including an eventual friend of mine. He was 14, terrified, and hid under his bed. As a teenager I found this bit of lore noteworthy not because it was surprising but because it wasn’t. The rape and the silence seemed just like what would happen, given the school and the people around me. The surrounding adult hysteria felt distant and insincere.
Looking back, I can no longer summon that youthful brutality but I do remember it, and was startled to find it parsed and made meaningful in the excellent, excellent Unaccompanied Minors, a collection of short stories by Alden Jones. The book won the 2013 New American Fiction Prize, and was published in June 2014 by New American Press. It takes the young and the brutal—anorexic suburban girls, bad babysitters, gay boys paying for sex from boys slightly less fortunate, a drunk party-girl making fun of homeless people, and yes, a girl who sets her friend up to be maybe date-raped—observes them omnivorously and, with the lightest of touches, makes their dramas morally relevant.
(I suppose now would be a good time to say that Alden is a college friend of mine, and I’ve seen earlier versions of most of these stories, and remember the real-life events they’re loosely based on. Reading them as a collection has been a disconcerting experience, full of new insight.)
The opening piece, “Shelter,” starts like this: “We’re in a homeless shelter in Asheville, NC. We think it’s funny. How did all these people in some hellish hickish place like Asheville, NC, get homeless, that’s what we want to know. It’s so crowded we have to sleep on the floor.” The narrator is funny, but she’s also just a little bit of a sociopath. And then the next line dislocates her further: “I’m with this dyke Spike who I met in Ft Lauderdale, FL. She’s got an old white Toyota and a tent where we’ve been sleeping the past month.”
Who is this girl, who is adrift, yet able to carelessly despise people more adrift than she? She clearly doesn’t know. She’s on the road, rootless, uncertain of her sexuality (Spike’s the dyke, not her), following her urges. Wherever she’s from, it doesn’t matter. Where she’s going, she doesn’t care. In the end, she blows off thought in favor of beer, saying, “My brain’s all clear, way too clear for me to handle much less sleep, so I say Spikey, let’s hit the road, let’s drive all night until the 7-11 decides it’s Monday and we can get ourselves a six pack.”
Thoughtless, charming, seeking—she’s a surprisingly complex character (they all are), and as the first perspective in the book, she sets up many themes—self-knowledge and its lack, compassion and its lack, the lack of familial ties, sex as an agent of change.
The second story is about an abortion, that feature of the wealthy suburbs. In the third, “Thirty Seconds,” a little boy drowns in the country club pool, seen from the point of view of his babysitter. “The fact that Johnny Kirk is dead has little to do with me,” the narrator says. Her hours were over, she wasn’t technically in charge of the boy at the time, and overall, she thinks, “I handled it well.” She’s monstrous in her lack of compassion (or possibly denial), but she’s also almost a child herself. And through her eyes we glimpse the milieu that created her and endangered her charge—the distracted, wealthy parents, the unpleasant gender expectations, the bad marriages and venal concerns. This milieu’s children, as Jones wonderfully puts it elsewhere, are “orphaned by leisure and frivolity.”
“30 Seconds” is the only story where the lack of parenting is made overt, but I felt that the silence was deafening. Parents, family, nurture, inform every page by their absence. Either that, or the author’s point is that every kid has to, eventually, invent themselves without help.
Sex is a force that drives the inventing, perhaps because it drags even the self-absorbed into contact with other people, or at least into contact with themselves. The narrator of “Freaks,” says that sex “lifted you out of your skin at the same time it put you more solidly inside your body than you ever had been before.” She’s explaining the feeling to her best friend, who is casually described as a “rexie,” despite the life-threatening seriousness of her condition. In this story, the body-embracing girl lives and the body-denying girl dies, a chilling winnowing that nonetheless feels true.
This story also contained a detail that’s emblematic of just how granular and good Jones’s observations are. The anorexic best friend “would pull a stick of gum out of her pocket, place the stick of gum flat on her tongue, and play with the wrapper until it was a mess of little foil-and-paper balls.” Every shade of anorexia is contained in just lying the gum flat. She’s tasting it for as long as she can without chewing it. She’s delaying the moment of taking a bite. Realizing that made a pool of sympathetic synthetic-sugar-spit puddle on my tongue. I remember those days, too.
The point-of-view matures through different narrators as the collection advances. The sexual power discovered by the narrator in “Freaks” is refined upon by the narrator of “Heathens.” Now she’s an English teacher in Costa Rica, trying to distinguish herself as less clueless and exploitative than the evangelical American teens who come through the town to proselytize. Somehow this leads her to set up one of the evangelicals—a girl in whom she sees herself—on a date that will possibly turn into a date-rape.
Here’s her reasoning (the story is voiced as a monologue from one girl to the other):
“Molly, if you want Jorge I hope, I hope you’ll take him. But it will be more likely that you won’t. He’ll have the condoms, and he has my blessing—but even without those things Jorge might feel he has a right to you. And I’m giving you a chance to take matters into your own hands; this is my gift to you. No one to hide behind, no one to give that cute pout to, Molly. Just you. Deciding what you want and taking it.”
This terrible idea has a kind of power to it—at least, a power I would have recognized as a teenager. I think the narrator is doing the wrong thing, but I appreciate the experimentation, the narrow margins, the raw electricity of the idea. This way, when a character finally makes a good decision, for a right reason (at the very end of the last story), it’s been hard-enough won.
Before the book ends, though, there’s a pivot from stories about primarily American characters to “Sin Alley,” about a gay boy fighting to win the affection of an allegedly straight rent boy, set in Costa Rica with an all Costa Rican–cast. (His victory, naturally, comes at an enormous price in child-blood.) The story was bridged by “Heathens,” also set in Costa Rica, but still feels anomalous since we’ve made the cultural leap from American suburbs. Ultimately I thought the linkage of such disparate groups by sexuality and danger was one of the book’s most effective surprises.
Unaccompanied minors are created by all kinds of circumstance, but they have this much in common: They were formed by a deficiency of care, and don’t know the first thing about it, and if they’re very, very lucky, hopscotching along the signposts of sex and love, they might figure it out and make it out alive. The title for the last story is a good note to end on: “Flee.” You flee something life-threatening—childhood, in this case—into the future. It’s called growing up.