Carlos Cade and Lance Arthur were childhood friends in Salt Lake City in the 1950’s. With other neighborhood children they spent their weekends exploring the hills outside town. On one of these expeditions their adolescent war games got out of hand and Lance killed another boy with a rock. Panic-stricken, they agreed to tell the police that the boy fell to his death. A few days later everyone had forgotten the incident—except Carlos, that is, who continued to brood about Lance’s “crime” for the next thirty years.
Lance, an “imitation Kennedy” from a wealthy family, rises inexorably in Salt Lake society, eventually becoming governor of Utah. Carlos, meanwhile, sinks ever lower on the socioeconomic scale. Unable to hold down the most menial job, he spends his time drinking beer, smoking marijuana, and cursing Lance’s luck. He is convinced that Lance is somehow responsible for his own failure, and he dreams of evening the score.
SIRENS borrows from—and subverts—at least two popular fictional genres: the coming-of-age novel and the classic Western. Carlos Cade’s cynical critique of a society of phonies ultimately derives from A CATCHER IN THE RYE, and Stephen Pett’s narrative voice seems consciously modeled on Salinger’s. The difference is that Carlos manages to sustain Holden Caulfield’s adolescent rebellion well into adulthood. At the same time Carlos’ obsession with revenge recalls the frontier justice of the typical Western, as Carlos himself—who lives on a steady diet of Zane Grey novels—recognizes. He also realizes, however, that the Wild West has vanished for good, and when he dreams of escape he looks east to the wilds of Minnesota or Florida.
SIRENS is a well-written and engaging first novel marred only by a rather vague chronology and an overuse of flashbacks. Since Carlos doesn’t really mature or develop—incredibly, he is the same dope-smoking punk at age twelve that he is at age thirty—it is often difficult to determine how old he is at any given time or even to guess what decade it is supposed to be.
Nevertheless, SIRENS is a strong debut, and a worthy addition to the excellent Vintage Contemporaries series.