On the face of things, Ares Ramirez, the 12-year-old at the broken heart of Marisa Silver’s elegiac new novel, The God of War, is working through a normal adolescence. His body is changing, his soul is torn between belonging and rebellion and he doesn’t know whether to love or hate his single mother, Laurel, with whom he lives in a run-down trailer in the Southern California desert bounded by Mexico and San Diego. But for a boy his age, the pain and possibilities of growing up are complicated by unusual responsibilities. Laurel, who works as a masseuse in a nearby spa, leaves Ares to care for his younger brother Malcolm. Still, the blight on Ares’ life is not Malcolm, whom Ares loves with an inchoate love as protective as it is resentful, but a secret connected with Malcolm that Ares shares only with the reader.
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By the time Ares’ guilt has done its work and come to light, you will know him and the other players in his unfolding drama with such intimate specificity and sympathy that the casually contemptuous term white trash — which liberals who would never use the N word toss off without thinking twice — won’t even cross your mind. Marginality is a theme in just about any novel you pick up these days, usually written by and/or about the whiny, alienated children of unhappily prosperous families. Silver gives voice to real outsiders, society’s castoffs who eke out precarious livings around the edges of that other failure, the Salton Sea, a river deflected long ago in hopes of creating a desert oasis for tourists, and now so polluted and oversalinated that it washes up trash and dead fish by the thousand.
“The desert’s plants and animals thrived in seemingly impossible circumstances, against heat and drought and other odds,” says Ares, now an adult looking back on the savage 1978 summer that would shape his family’s future. “The same could have been said of its people, too.”
Silver brings such people vividly to life without either patronizing or reducing them to types, offering reflections of a sorry decade ruined by the legacy of war and a failed counterculture. With her faded sarong, her fists defensively raised against all social institutions, her two sons by different fathers and another on the way by her intermittent boyfriend, Richard, Laurel seems on first acquaintance like a generic post-hippie lost soul. In fact, this lively flirt loves her boys as fiercely as she loves the stiff desert plants that have lushly exotic names like ocotillo, creosote, indigo bush; her hostility to official interference is grounded more in the damage done by a rigidly fundamentalist childhood.
You could also say that The God of War is filled with “boys at risk,” but that would be to flatten the rich complication of their faltering resilience. Richard is a worldly wise Vietnam veteran with a charred psyche that won’t let him come to rest anywhere, yet he loves Laurel and her boys and cares for them to the best of his abilities. Today, we’d label Malcolm — who can’t speak or listen, who can imitate bird calls with perfect pitch but kills them to keep them safe — severely autistic. Silver won’t, and not only because little was known about that condition in the 1970s. Just as she gives Laurel her due without romanticizing her belligerent refusal of institutional help for Malcolm, so Silver allows Malcolm to be a boy, however handicapped and potentially dangerous. And Ares, a sensitive, bookish, obedient lad undone by the belief that it’s his fault Malcolm is the way he is and — yes — by the neglect of his loving but harried mother, begins to unravel too. Taking up with Kevin, the radically unlovable foster son of the upright school librarian who’s trying to socialize Malcolm with flash cards, Ares cuts school, shoplifts and has a hair-raising run-in with local drug dealers, all in pursuit of the comfort and approval he can’t ask for or give himself.
Silver is the daughter of filmmakers Raphael Silver and Joan Micklin Silver, and she has written (Old Enough) and directed (He Said, She Said) movies herself. Which may be why a gun pops up in the first act of The God of War and dutifully goes off in the third. I don’t know that it needs to, and certainly the book’s immanent sense of danger is more effectively foreshadowed by the boys’ terrifying encounter with planes from the nearby air-force base, dropping live ammunition in the desert by way of exercise. For all her visual command of the arid terrain on which Ares lives with his family, Silver is, at heart, an introvert who documents with tough compassion the gnawing loneliness inside the hearts of her protagonists, and their sense of perennial unsafety. Yet in the aftermath of its climax, The God of War also commits itself to a wary celebration of family love — starved, battered, parched, sometimes heedless and angry — but always fierce and strong and, in its fallible way, true.
“He had a voice, a pure, true voice that sang the world back to itself,” Ares says of his brother. “It was the best thing a voice could be called upon to do.” The same could be said of this lovely, necessary novel.
THE GOD OF WAR | By MARISA SILVER| Simon & Schuster | 271 pages | $23 hardcover