NOVEMBER 2, 2017
ROSECRANS BALDWIN’S NEW NOVEL is a coming-of-age tale so decisively of our time that it’s almost surprising that it doesn’t rely on a dystopian veneer to carry its themes. It is a wonder and a pleasure to see a work of fiction that so honestly, accurately, and effortlessly belongs to the here and now in ways that neither trivialize its horrors nor play them to their apocalyptic hilt. The Last Kid Left is a good old-fashioned, American novel about small-town life, intergenerational strife, murder, incest, the internet, and first love.
The title raises the question — who is Baldwin’s “last kid”? It’s something I wondered after finishing the book and I like the fact that I’m not confident I can say for sure, though I have a hunch. Really though, there are a lot of possibilities, in part because so much of this novel is populated by adults who are not worthy of the title or the charge. When you start to think about it, you wonder, “Who here isn’t a child?” The ones with the most likely claims are probably the two mains: Nick Toussaint Jr. and Emily Portis. With Nick at 20 and Emily at 16, they are genuine kids — are even branded “The Claymore Kids” by swarming journalists when their story becomes the stuff of tabloid news and think pieces alike. Both hail from storied, broken families in the little made-up seaside town of Claymore, New Hampshire.
Claymore County, population 81,000. The county seat constitutes about a fifth of that number. Ocean and mountain country, thriving apple orchards, with a coastline that hugs a ragged edge. Once there was a prosperous shipyard in town, now it makes roofing panels. Wild strawberries are for sale. Family gun shops next to delis. A good view of the Isles of Shoals with excursion-boat companies that offer cruises. Outskirts of town enclosed by unsold developments. In the center, old townhouses, Georgian and federal, blue and red, some with their coal shoots preserved.
The Toussaints and the Portises, it turns out, have had bad blood dating back to the late 19th century, a fact that matters little to anyone anymore except Emily’s father, the county sheriff and a damaged and dangerous man. Though Emily and Nick know little or nothing of the ancient feud, Emily knows enough not to tell her father about Nick when the two stumble into one another’s lives and fall quickly and desperately in love. She knows that, despite her age, any boyfriend would prove a problem with dad, little imagining how much worse the last name makes it in this case. Before the novel properly begins, both have suffered horribly. They have, by circumstance, been forced to grow up much earlier than natural. We only learn the extent to which they’ve suffered very gradually. This is, in fact, the bulk of the book and the real mystery at its heart — a double-murder case aside. Baldwin skillfully leads us crumb by crumb to a terrible truth at the center of a beguilingly scenic labyrinth: that maybe, when children suffer like this, there’s no such thing as childhood at all.
Our guides in the pursuit of this bleak sentiment are several. The first is Martin Krug, a retired cop from Eagle Mount, New Jersey, who meets Nick at the very start of the novel when the kid drunkenly crashes a Ford Explorer into a local landmark — the “Rancho” Restaurant’s large neon cowgirl out by the underpass on the outskirts of town. When two corpses are discovered in the back, Martin, then riding out his last week as Eagle Mount’s chief, becomes personally involved, booking Nick and taking a statement that quickly turns into a murder confession. The bodies, Nick says, belonged to a doctor and his wife from his hometown of Claymore. Rumor had it that the doctor possessed a home safe with thousands of dollars in cash, Nick tells Martin, and the murder and subsequent drunken flight toward Mexico were the desperate measures of a kid in over his head after a botched attempt at armed robbery. Martin contacts counterparts in New Hampshire and prepares to put the matter behind him, but for the nagging conviction that Nick’s statement is a complete crock of shit.
The room is shadowy. Martin sits in front of the dark TV. He forcibly shifts his thoughts to the kid, Toussaint. The fact that somewhere nearby is a courthouse, attorneys, all the cogs of the machine, and a young man accused of home invasion and double homicide. Who must be terrified, Martin wonders, as the system whirrs around him. A kid he can’t imagine to be guilty.
This conviction follows him into his retirement and soon thereafter, when family troubles provide a welcome excuse to skip town and indulge his curiosity about the developing case. Thus, Martin drives to Claymore and presents himself to Nick’s court-appointed public defender as a pro bono investigator, determined to find out who really did the deed and why Nick is protecting them by forfeiting his own life. Nick has stuck to his story and won’t say anything more about it, but Martin, the old hand, doggedly pursues his hunch with the little he has to go on, leading him, eventually to Emily Portis.
Emily Portis. Your heart breaks for this girl. At least at first. And then, some more. Finally, though, you realize she is not the one to be sad for, despite all the garbage — true ugliness, true evil — she endures. She is sweet, and bright, and it turns out, tough as nails and more than a little savvy. The story, really, belongs to her. She and Nick have a lot in common — they are both the children of adults who remain, through privilege, cowardice, trauma, substance abuse, and psychosis, essentially children themselves, but Emily’s is the bigger burden and her arc the more devastating and wonderful. Martin’s pursuit of the truth on behalf of Nick may take him to Emily’s door, but it’s someone else who plays confessor to Emily and provides her with a platform to tell her story in her own words — a story that frames, informs, and ultimately exceeds the boundaries of the novel.
It all starts, for better or worse, with explicit photos of Emily finding their way to the press — photos she herself took to send to Nick, languishing in jail while awaiting trial. The woman — or maybe she’s a girl, the meandering millennial type of kid — is Leela Mann, another Claymore native who, after losing her job at The Village Voice, leaves Brooklyn to return home for a rent-free stint in a friend’s parent’s cabin in nearby Madbury. There, in a Thoreau-like act of financial desperation and inspirational brinksmanship, she begins looking for a story that might give her a shot at a recent opening at a magazine so prestigious she can barely bring herself to utter its name. The peril for her is not so much whether she’ll find a story — we know she will and we know it will be the story of Emily and Nick, “The Claymore Kids” — but whether the story she finds will be more than just a story of herself, refracted through the words of another, and whether that story, done justice, will redeem its subject in the eyes of readers easily swayed by smut and propaganda.
If anything, what appears to be the burning broad consensus is that it’s too soon to know whether to embrace or rebuff the vision presented. Or just flat-out mock it. Or to take the dispatch on its own merits and analyze the crimes discussed, with more expansive questions about the fourth estate and humanity in present-day America. Or use the spring-back of the account’s metaphorical diving board to address other issues, like the perils of unsafe sexting. Or fourth-wave feminism and the value of consent in an age of livestreaming and “sextortion.” Or the evolution of women’s sex-positive expression, from de Pizan/Hesse to Rihanna feat. Lorde. Or the history of phrases like “benevolent sexism,” “hegemonic masculinity,” “pussy affluenza,” and why they remain in quotes for public digestion. Or the tragic history, regarding both female eroticism and rape culture, that is specific to New England, sacred turf of Louisa May Alcott, Shirley Jackson, and other chroniclers of the northeastern bloc’s transgressed young women. So the opinion writers have a field day and do all of these things.
Together, following the respective investigations of Martin and Leela, Baldwin reconstructs the events that brought Nick and Emily together and got Nick arrested for murder, and turns Emily, who carries the torch for her imprisoned boyfriend, into a viral sensation, local pariah, and an unlikely and complicated feminist icon.
For all the horror and darkness The Last Kid Left contains — often presented in stark, plain language that only deepens its brutal impact — there is a lightness of touch, an optimism and a sweetness about this book that radiates from its characters and sparkles in the breezily virtuosic though never flashy prose. Even at its bleakest, it is never not a pleasure to read. The claustrophobia of Claymore — the creeping dread that can and usually does attend small New England towns in novels that involve murder and abuse — can turn on a dime, in Baldwin’s hands, to coziness, its menace dissipated by an evenhanded feeling for the diverse and largely decent, if at times absurd, folk that make it up. There are few heroes in The Last Kid Left, but few true villains either, and while no one we come to care about remains unscathed, justice is ultimately served.
In the end, I think the title of last kid left belongs to Emily. Her suffering may be the worst, but her resilience is more than a match for it, emerging from a hell of others’ making into a new life forged largely on her own. Other characters may grow up, but Emily, to her credit, will get there when she damn well pleases, not so much regaining her childhood as proving to everyone who would scorn, pity, or otherwise misunderstand her, that she never lost her innocence in the first place.