The evangelical preacher Harold Camping predicted that on May 21, 2011, Christ would descend from heaven while faithful Christians would ascend into it, leaving nonbelievers mired in a hell on earth. Some took Camping’s prophesy to heart, selling their possessions and taking to the streets to urge their brethren to repent before it was too late. The world didn’t end, of course, but a question remained: Who were those people?
Mary Miller’s first-rate debut novel delivers the answer with substantial wit and compassion. “The Last Days of California” follows the Metcalfs, a God-fearing Alabama family headed to the Sunshine State just in time for the Rapture. Although some may find the Metcalfs’ beliefs fanciful, Miller never condescends; she has boundless empathy for her flawed characters and their quixotic journey. What results is a humane, funny, and genuinely unsettling coming-of-age story that falls somewhere between the tales of Flannery O’Connor and Terrence Malick’s film “Badlands.”
Miller’s success is due largely to the enticing voice of Jess, her 15-year-old narrator. A good teenage narrator is hard to find, addled as they are by supernatural precocity or faux-naivete. Jess falls victim to neither. Instead she approaches self-awareness. While she has all but abandoned her parents’ faith, she is haunted by the niggling fear that they might be right about the apocalypse. Of equal concern are her weight and social standing.
These worries all jumble together, as worries tend to do, coalescing in Jess’s thrillingly awful snacking habits, which Miller writes about in lurid detail. Jess’s longing for and fixation on sugary food, fried things, and vending-machine fare are persistent and profound. In a Texas diner, she recounts every morsel of her pork platter while ruminating over a lamentably one-sided high school friendship: “When the beans were done, I started in on my sandwich. I was starving and knew it wasn’t food I wanted, but it had somehow become my focus.” Indeed, her hunger is a cri de coeur against her lack of agency — in her social life, in her family, in a world that could soon come to an end.
Jess is similarly powerless against her sister, Elise. Two years her senior, Elise is beautiful, thin, and a popular cheerleader. She’s also very bright, an outspoken atheist and vegetarian with oodles of sexual experience and a penchant for getting drunk with strange men. And she’s pregnant: Jess discovers Elise’s secret when she finds a plastic stick with a plus sign in the bathroom of a Biloxi hotel. She’s enraged with and awed by Elise’s predicament and terrified by every potential outcome: Will their parents find out about the pregnancy and disown Elise? Will she have an abortion? Is she going to hell?
The parents are equally complex figures. Jess’s mother is a doormat, but a loving and sympathetic one. Her father is pricklier; he’s a gambler who can’t hold a job, yet he delights in the notion that most of the world will soon drown in an ocean of blood.
By the standards of the East Coast liberal elite, Jess’s father is a monster, but in Miller’s hands, he becomes a tragic figure — no small feat, but one representative of the author’s ability to slyly challenge class bias. “Being religious is no excuse for being this unattractive,” Elise remarks of another Rapture pilgrim. “Maybe she’s just unattractive and religious and the two don’t have anything to do with one another,” replies Jess. Elise’s retort: “I don’t know about that.”
As the Metcalfs whiz through the Southwest in a minivan strewn with fast-food wrappers, past a countryside dotted with figurative and actual ghost towns, Jess comes of age in the least sentimental way imaginable. These ugly, hot landscapes and bored, disappointed, fatalistic women first appeared in Miller’s extraordinary story collection, “Big World,” but they’re more fully realized and resonant here.
“The Last Days of California” not only transcends its predecessor, but beats most debuts by a Texas mile. Even if the Metcalfs don’t make it to heaven, Miller’s readers have no choice but to ascend.