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'Last Kid Left' Is A Summer Read For People Who Hate The Light

Rosecrans Baldwin's new novel, The Last Kid Left, probably shouldn't have come out as a summer novel.

At first glance, it has all the hallmarks of a beach read: Summer, a shore town in New Hampshire full of tourists and locals, a murder (double murder, actually) and an investigation which take up several hundred pages. There's a zip to it. A musicianship to the language that makes the whole thing hum like a plucked guitar.

But the question you've gotta ask yourself is, what kind of summer read are you looking for? How much blood do you want to take to the beach with you? Because this book is a mystery, but only kinda. A procedural, but only kinda. A love story, done in the terrible tones of dead-end youth crossed with die-for-you romanticism. It's a summer book for people who hate the light.

It begins with a kid, Nick Toussaint Jr., drunkenly crashing his truck into a neon cowgirl by the side of the road in New Jersey. He's pulled from the wreck by a cop, Martin Krug, who is just days from retirement. Cop looks in the back and sees the bodies. Man and woman. Very, very dead, and not because of the crash. And the kid, Nick, he confesses to everything. Martin didn't even have to ask. He wrote it all down, step by step by step.

Martin doesn't believe a word.

So that's the mystery: Who killed the hell out of this nice small-town New England doctor and his wife? And why? That's more than enough to keep the plot of a thinner novel going all on its own — but Baldwin isn't done. He's barely getting started.

'The Last Kid Left' is, oddly, a modern version of 'The Scarlet Letter' ... but one where every single character is broken and walks around all day with their guts hanging out.

Nick is sent back to New Hampshire for trial — to Claymore, the depressed shell of his hometown. Martin retires a couple days later and goes to Claymore, too, volunteering his services to the defense as an investigator because he doesn't buy the kid's story and wants to find the truth. This is when the flashbacks begin, when Baldwin starts jumping from head to head to head, following a dozen narrative strands — everything that happened which led up to the double murder, everything which happens in its aftermath. How Nick met Emily, sheltered daughter of the local sheriff. How Emily met her best friend Alex, unsheltered child living alone with her older sister, the most famous stripper in Claymore. It's a story about the nightmare of high school in the age of social media; of the dismal, predatory media landscape; of the kind of young, pure, stupid, ferocious love that can consume you at 16, at 19, and make you believe that you are feeling something that no one has ever felt before in the history of love.

The Last Kid Left is, oddly, a modern version of The Scarlet Letter (which press materials say is one of Baldwin's favorite novels), but one where every single character is broken and walks around all day with their guts hanging out. It is a witch-hunt story for our age of witch-hunts. Guilty-until-proven-innocent-by-someone-else-just-being-MORE-guilty.

And I liked it. In moments. In virtuoso bursts of language and characterization and insight into disparate emotional states like love and terror and exhaustion. Baldwin's ability to get into the minds of so many different characters and make us feel their conflict is admirable. His dialogue feels pulled from the mouths of actual people — each one of them chewing over a different vocabulary.

But there are just so many of them — it seems like every character here has a twisted doppelganger. So Martin Krug, the noble, alcoholic, twice-divorced ex-cop trying to defend Nick, has the town sheriff with his furious control issues and deep secrets. Emily has Alex. The unemployed young journalist Leela who coincidentally arrives back in her hometown of Claymore just as the story of the teenage double-murderer is breaking huge — has several other journalists against which to chafe.

And everyone has a version of what happened on the night that the doctor and his wife were murdered. While the book flirts with the ragged edge of satire — of a blackly humorous look at innocence and guilt at a time when everyone is both, just in unequal measure — it never quite gets there. It is beautiful in moments. Funny in moments. Terrifying and can't-look-away awful in moments. But with such overwhelming ambition on display, and such hugeness of scope, Baldwin can never quite bring those moments together into a story that doesn't feel like it's going a hundred different places and nowhere at all, all at the same time.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic atPhiladelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 3, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this review referred to one character as Thelsa. Her name is Leela.