IN MARY MILLER’S debut novel, The Last Days of California, we journey with 15-year-old Jess Metcalf, her pregnant sister Elise, and her parents on a road trip from Montgomery, Alabama, to California, where the family hopes to be “among the last people in the Continental U.S. to witness the coming of Our Savior, Lord Jesus Christ.” The girls, of course, are in a different state of belief than their father, who keeps the number of days until the Rapture written in black ink on the back of his right hand. When we first see the family, at a Waffle House in a “shitty little town in Louisiana,” a 3 marks his hand. He tells his daughters that the end of the world will be like “three 9/11s in a day — tornadoes in places that have never seen tornadoes and earthquakes where there are no fault lines. The sun’ll turn red as blood and bodies’ll be piled up everywhere. Thank God we won’t be around to see it.”
Jess, the narrator, believes her father and believes in the Rapture, but she also notices that he sounds “excited when he talk[s] about the tribulations,” that he takes some sort of sick pleasure in being among the chosen, the saved. She’s beginning to question things. Looking through her father’s tracts, she thinks about “God holding us accountable for something we hadn’t done and then letting us continue to rule ourselves so badly for so long in order to show us that we needed Him. I hadn’t ever thought about it before, really. The logic seemed sketchy.” Elise, on the other hand, is a couple of years older than Jess and has stumbled headlong into full-fledged rebellion, dismissing her parents’ values and embracing a sort of chaotic numbness. Her pregnancy is a secret. She drinks and breaks rules. She’s passed the point of merely doubting her father. She disagrees with him openly, looking for new and exciting ways to step outside the bounds of her family’s vision of decency, and enjoys punching through the wall of her sister’s naivety. She wears a King Jesus Returns! T-shirt and “shorts that were so short you couldn’t tell she was wearing them,” drawing the attention of older men everywhere. She always dresses up as a “dead slutty something” for Halloween. Of Elise, Jess says, “She drank coffee every morning now; she’d drink cup after cup and hold up her hand so I could watch it shake.”
On its surface, The Last Days of California could seem merely like the tale of a dysfunctional family on the road to a different kind of redemption than they’d planned on. But in Miller’s hands it’s something else entirely, a beautiful examination of youth and family and what it means to be alive (and to fear dying) in contemporary America. Depending on who’s doing the talking, you’ll hear a lot of different things about this novel. Some will probably complain that nothing much happens. Many will call it a coming-of-age story, a bildungsroman. Those things are true, I suppose, but they just don’t do justice to a novel that overflows with such sharp observations on humanity. In that way, every scene in The Last Days of California — yes, even the ones where not much is happening, where the family sits at a dinner table, where Jess waits anxiously for a text — tremble with significance. Jess’s interiority — her thoughts on everything from the food she eats to the deep fears that rattle her — can’t be duplicated onscreen, which is why good recent films like The Way, Way Back and The Spectacular Now, which tread similar territory, ultimately feel pretty hollow next to Miller’s book.
Critics, even those that love this novel, will probably suggest that Miller is not breaking any new ground in her portrait of angsty youth. But she is. Absolutely. Rarely, if ever, have we seen young American womanhood painted in such a raw and honest and heartbreaking way. Jess changes over the course of the narrative but way more interesting is her thought process in getting there. As she passes a room at a divey motel in Texas with the curtains open, she tells us:
I wanted to be a curtains-open kind of person, a person who smiled at strangers on the street — not just dogs and babies but beautiful people, too. Sometimes I could be this kind of person. I’d feel so good and happy and it was like I’d never felt any other way, but the next day I’d be afraid again.
Fear is what drives Jess — fear that she’s wrong, that her father and mother are wrong, that Elise is wrong, that she’ll never find a way to fit comfortably in the world, even if it is on the brink of ending. Jess’s focus on food reiterates her greatest concerns. The car is full of snacks the family would never buy at home, including “squares of fudge that appeared homemade but had probably been made in a factory like everything else.” Jess tells us: “I liked having these snacks — they felt like protection against something.”
There’s no mystery that drives the tension in The Last Days of California. This is not a book that expects us to be surprised when the Rapture doesn’t occur, when the family doesn’t even make it to California. Miller’s writing is all we need to carry us. Like Willy Vlautin, she can drive a nail into your heart with the simple sadnesses of being alive and being afraid. “Driving was boring,” Jess tells us after leaving the motel in Texas. “Everything was boring. It was hard to believe that so much money had been spent to build roads where so few people travelled.” Miller is obsessed with the frightening size of the world. It’s a preoccupation she explores in her beautiful story collection, Big World, and one she revisits with startling effect here. “People were always saying the world was small but that was only to make it seem less terrifying,” Jess says. “The world was so big. I hadn’t realized how big it was until now.” This is such a great concern for a novel that never strays from its four main characters, that focuses so intensely on the small frailties of family dynamics.
Jess and Elise have several important encounters over the four days that the book takes place — with boys, with strangers at various rest stops and motels and bars and flea markets and, finally, at a casino. They witness a vicious accident. They reference movies they love, mostly ’80s movies that take place in “a dream world in which the captain of the football team would leave the homecoming queen for an awkward red-haired girl who made her own clothes.” They listen to end-of-the-world mixes on their iPods. They’re restless. They’re trapped. They’re sisters. Allow me a longshot comparison here: this is a book about femininity in the same way that True Detective is a show about masculinity. Jess and Elise are constantly talking through issues that are all-consuming to them. Jess envies her sister and is trying to figure out exactly what it means to be a woman. “I wanted to starve myself,” she says, “until I was the skinniest, most beautiful girl in the world.” When she prays, she begins her conversation with God like a child: “Hello, God. It’s me.” But then she wonders if it’s “an attempt to feel closer to Him, claiming to be me?” By the end of the prayer, she’s strayed into frightful young adulthood: “I haven’t been very good. I’ve had a lot of doubts. […] I’m not sure I believe in you anymore.” It’s a wonderful moment, one that further reveals the blinding fear that envelops her. Toward the end of the trip, after a sad sexual encounter that serves as a sort of rite of initiation into the same world that Elise exists in, Jess sits in the bathroom and listens to her sister and some boys talk and laugh, “knowing [she] would never be part of it.” She thinks:
I would always be separate, thinking about what expression my face was making, what people thought of me. Observing peoples’ weaknesses and flaws — their big thighs and crooked teeth and acne, their lack of confidence, their fear. I would always think the worst about people and it would keep me from them because I couldn’t accept myself.
More than anything, though, The Last Days of California is about family, about what it means to be a part of something so delicate, what it means to work against what your parents believe, what it means to be filled with doubt and compassion and wonder in the midst of it all. If you ever spent a great amount of time in a car with your parents and siblings, you’ll find line after line that resonates as absolutely spot on. Being a kid can feel inescapable, but The Last Days of California doesn’t end like Freaks and Geeks (where Lindsay, who Jess has a great deal in common with, disobeys her parents and gets on a bus with Kim Kelly); it ends with Jess and Elise eating breakfast with their folks. Jess thinks: “It could be terrible having a family — you had to suffer their pains and disappointments along with your own — but the good stuff couldn’t be shared, at least not in the same way.” This is representative of what Miller’s so good at. This sentence, this seemingly simple observation, stopped me cold, made me weep.
Elise is sick at the end of the novel, and she’ll only talk to Jess, who goes down to the sundries shop at the casino with 20 bucks to buy Advil and candy and gossip magazines. “I wanted to spend it all,” Jess thinks, “felt the need to get down to zero.” Jess comforts her sister, takes care of her. And it’s Elise who tells Jess the most important thing that she hears over the course of the journey: “These aren’t the last days of California. You’ll see it eventually.” This statement rings with hope, and Jess understands that “what would feel like failure [...] didn't feel like failure now.” The big world suddenly seems full of possibilities to her, as it often does to a child who has just become an adult.