Saturday, February 25, 2017

"The Most Dangerous Place on Earth," by Lindsey Lee Johnston

Readers of this blog know that I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, and am attracted to fiction about the area. It is great to read about faraway places, and I wouldn’t give that up, but there is something addictive about reading about one’s own territory. Lindsey Lee Johnston’s first novel, “The Most Dangerous Place On Earth” (Random House, 2017), takes place in the small town north of the Golden Gate where I live, Mill Valley. Cue comments about Marin County’s wealthy, liberal, mostly white, self-involved, slightly ridiculous inhabitants. And perhaps some of these stereotypes are partially true, but definitely not all, and not to the extent that Marin County has been satirized for. OK, I won’t be defensive. The author, according to the back flap, was “born and raised” in Marin, and I assume she writes of it with the authority of knowing it inside out. The story is about a group of high school students in Mill Valley, and I am guessing Johnston went to high school there. She definitely traffics in some of the stereotypes, but I am willing to believe there is a lot of truth in her portrayal of the lives of these young people in this particular setting. I have seen and heard enough that the stories, the events, are believable. And much of which she writes about could and does happen in other similarly prosperous suburbs and towns in other areas of California and of the U.S. These young people in the novel have all the pressures that so many teenagers, even or in some cases especially those who are privileged, have: school, families, friends, girlfriends and boyfriends, sex, drinking and drugs, dangerous mistakes, uncertainty about themselves and their directions in life, and more. We meet, among others, the dancer, the drug dealer, the hippie, the misfit, and the popular kids. We also learn about the lives of two teachers at the high school with their own issues. The story is full of plot, fast-paced, sad, sometimes funny. This reader often shuddered and wanted to reach into the story and warn the characters not to do the self-destructive things they are doing. Now to the more mundane but enjoyable pleasures of the book for a fellow resident of Mill Valley (albeit only for a dozen years in my case; I lived in Northern Marin for a dozen years before that, after moving across the bridge from San Francisco): recognizing the streets (including the winding ones on the hillsides like the one I live on), the schools, the stores, the restaurants, the redwoods, Mount Tamalpais, and countless other specific details was an enjoyable plus for a local reader.
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