Crown, 2013, $25
Ratchetsburg, Pennsylvania, is a familiar place: its convenience marts, its midrange seafood place, its gritty neighborhoods where older houses press too closely against one another, its suburbs. Its headlines, too, could be from almost anywhere in the US: Christian Worship Group Objects to Birth Control Lesson in High School Biology Class. Man Convicted in Vehicular Homicide Sentenced to 15 Years.
Behind those stock postmodern miseries are humans in worlds of anguish, and Kelly Braffet brings two families into crystalline focus in Save Yourself. The Elsheres are fundamentalists who've cornered the local market on purity rings and run a worship group in their basement. The widower Cusimano, a blue-collar alcoholic who steeped his misery in cheap beer, is now imprisoned for a horrible hit-and-run. The Elshere daughters and the Cusimano sons are already paying heavily for their parents' choices as the novel opens. Twentysomething Patrick Cusimano toils joylessly on the night shift at the convenience store, slogging through a sucking swamp of shame and alienation. Teenaged Layla Elshere, who started a ruckus that ended the career of a popular high school bio teacher for discussing condoms, has dyed her hair (what remained of it after the popular kids set it on fire) black, rejected her parents' beliefs in every possible way, and become a core member of the school's alienated Goth set.
As the tale builds, we experience life in Ratchetsburg from the perspectives of Patrick—who already had enough worries without being stalked by underage Goth seductress Layla—and of Verna, Layla's younger sister, who's caught between trying to remain a good Christian daughter and the relentless sex-shaming bullying of the In Crowd. Then there's Caro, the seafood-place waitress who's playing house with Mike, the elder Cusimano brother, while growing steadily more attracted to the deeper, subtler Patrick.
New Paltz resident Braffet is a sensual, concrete writer. We feel and smell the scenes she sets, from the pristine misery of the Elshere dinner table to the shabby Cusimano living room with its ever-ready cooler of beer. Under the fluorescent lights of Zoney's GoMart, on the high school loading dock where the alienated teens go to smoke and reaffirm their infinite superiority, in the blur of the corner bar, we are right there with her characters as they struggle with their loads of pain like swimmers wearing ankle weights.
Glimmers of hope surface and resubmerge as a growing sense of doom builds in their hearts and ours. As Verna increasingly follows her sister away from an empty Christianity into an even emptier nihilism, as Patrick falls into joyless sex with Layla, as Caro begins to realize that her hope of stability and coziness with Mike Cusimano will never be realized, the reader wants to yell "Watch out!" Yet the characters are so beset by deftly drawn reality that even as they stumble through bad choices, it's hard to see exactly what they'd do instead.
When the catastrophe comes, it is both inevitable and weirdly random—like bad news, like real life. Mundane threads have been woven deftly into breathtaking all-natural horror. Braffet leaves us wiser, anguished, praying to whatever powers we favor that the tiny, tentative green shoot of hope will flourish in the scorched earth. One certainty: Psychological thriller fans will be ravenously awaiting her next book. Appearing at 8/17 at 7pm, Oblong Books, Rhinebeck; 9/28 at 7pm, Inquiring Minds, New Paltz.