Eric Barnes’ second novel follows a trail of mayhem four adolescents blaze through the city of Tacoma, Wash., describing both the addictive thrill of violence and the boyish need to appear fearless.
“Something Pretty, Something Beautiful” (Outpost19, $16) is a formidable story about the rough culture of male friendship. The always rain-drenched, lower-class neighborhoods of Tacoma are vividly embedded in Barnes’ tale of a charismatic pack leader named Will Wilson, who hijacks the lives of three other adolescent boys and herds them through drunken nights of fights, arson, and trespasses on both property and the innocence of young girls.
Among Wilson’s followers is the book’s narrator, Brian Porter, a motherless soul whose father works nights at a factory, leaving him in the “care” of babysitters barely older than himself, one of whom will become a victim of a pack assault.
The anarchy the foursome creates is continuous and repetitious. Waking up in a hangover fog, Brian remembers: “Bad things had happened. I’d feel my hand then and know we’d gone out and fought. Know we’d driven to each corner of Tacoma. Know we’d found girls.” The glamorous peril of their adventures slams into reality when the sun rises and the drugs and alcohol wear off. “It was always damp in his cousin’s house and smelled bad and you’d wake up on the thin hard carpet feeling sick ... feeling cold and wet in my jacket, wet maybe from the night before out in the rain or just wet from the air in the house, with the curtains pulled shut and the floor and couch almost damp when you touched them.”
Barnes, who will sign his book at The Booksellers at Laurelwood at 6 p.m. Thursday, is publisher of The Daily News and The Memphis News and host of WKNO’s “Behind the Headlines.”
He grew up in Tacoma, and in “Something Pretty, Something Beautiful,” he creates a dead-end subculture in the water-logged city that makes the youthful tempting of death seem logical. The alternative to dying on a train track, or in a fight or a speeding car, is the slow wearing down of life at jobs in logging or fishing or construction. The narrator catches a view of a smokestack one night and remembers his father’s story about gagging on the smell of chlorine when he was a child. “ when they’d run into their house their mother would be there getting ready to leave for work and she’d say, ‘that’s the chlorine from the smelter cleaners. That means your dad is up there, right now, scrubbing the stack.’”
Barnes’ first novel, a slick thriller called “Shimmer,” published in 2009, described a sophisticated fraud perpetrated by a New York communications company. The mystery in “Something Pretty” is far from this territory in more than geographic terms.
The new novel chronicles in stark, effective prose a boy’s tragic discoveries about how friendship works. The narrator describes a beating Will Wilson delivers to one of his gang members, and then says with a lyrical gratitude that ambushes the reader: “Will Wilson made our lives. He broke down limits Coe and Teddy and me didn’t want. And by the time I left Tacoma, Will Wilson had given us all the kind of purpose and power that little kids fantasize about and most adults can never quite achieve.”