Stephen Stark, The Outskirts (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1988)
[originally posted 26Feb2002]
Stephen Stark’s debut novel is a confusing, exhilarating run through the spring of a high school senior’s life. Albie Santamoravia is eighteen, almost completely disaffected, close to failing out of school, and has a penchant for long distance running and a photographic memory for classical music. When he runs, he hears the music in his head (various Mahler pieces during most of the book’s scope). It’s something to cling to, Albie’s island of sanity in a world he doesn’t quite get.
Arrayed around Albie are those few people close enough to him to be friends or enemies. The head of the former camp is Carl, Albie’s childhood friend; that of the latter is Shaddock, the high school track coach who wants to get Albie onto the team. He stoops to somewhat nefarious levels to achieve his goal, up to and including having team members ambush Albie during a nightly run (or does it only happen in Albie’s head?). Still, things have achieved a sort of balance.
Into this state of things comes Martin, an older senior who’s repeating twelfth grade and has just moved into the neighborhood. It is with the coming of Martin that complications ensue here, and ensue they do. The Outskirts has some of the shortcomings of many first novels, which isn’t that much of a surprise. Mainly, the book takes a bit too long to get going; when your novel is less than two hundred fifty pages, you can’t afford to spend forty of them in setup. The book also wears its inspirations a bit too darkly on its sleeves, though that’s somewhat excusable; the books ends up being an intriguing blend of Lord of the Flies and Marathon Man, with a dash of A Clockwork Orange thrown in for good measure (echoed most strongly in Martin’s “what’s it going to be, then?” refrain). For all that, it does have its own voice, and Stark has a lot to say about the adolescent male mind. Certainly worth checking out. ** ½