>>Finally got around to it: May 2014
The boy we hadn’t met introduced himself as Charlie and got up to grab another chair while Erik passed around beers. They were so cold and everybody was so good-looking I felt like I was in a commercial. I pretended to take an interest in the father and son. The father was swimming laps while his kid sat on a step. I wondered if his mother was waiting in one of the rooms, but more than likely his parents were divorced and the man only had his son a few weeks every summer. To make things exactly even, they drove the same number of miles and exchanged him in the middle, which happened to be this shitty little West Texas town. It would explain why they were so disappointed in each other.
Elise took a Marlboro out of somebody’s pack and lit it with her bedazzled lighter before any of the boys could reach for their Zippos. I pressed my finger into a tiny flower on the table. It stuck and I thought about making a wish, but I’d been making a lot of wishes lately and they were the same generic wishes I always made. I was going to have to start being more specific. Gabe, I thought, blowing it off. I want Gabe.
“What are you guys doing here?” Charlie asked.
“We’re going to California where we’re going to witness the Second Coming of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. In Pacific Time,” Elise said. She told them we were the chosen ones, that they were going to suffer through terrible fires and earthquakes before the earth exploded into nothingness.
The end days have arrived and they are decidedly… chill. Disarmingly so, as a matter of fact. And how are the Metcalfs celebrating this auspicious and potentially catastrophic situation? By driving 2,500 miles from Montgomery, Alabama to California to be among those last individuals in the continental United States to witness the rapture (assuming, as their father is, that the rapture in fact sweeps across the globe time zone to time zone in an orderly fashion rather than wiping everything out at once in the blink of an eye).
The Last Days of California follows the family—father John, mother Barbara, older sister Elise, and younger sister and narrator Jess—as they move from one shitty motel to another, travelling through West Texas on their way to California, on the final four days of their journey. As they move from place to place, they stop and hand out religious tracts whenever possible—a seemingly futile attempt to save as many souls as they can before Jesus steps back into the spotlight and lays waste to all those unfortunate unworthies and non-believers alike.
While the entire family is invested in the journey, to varying degrees, it’s really the father’s “mission” and the rest are simply along for the ride. John is your typical über-conservative (i.e., Global Warming is a myth made up by the Left for political gain and other ludicrous gems) with a list of faults as long as his years: gambling problems, unable to hold onto a job, a bit of a racist streak toward Native Americans, an unwillingness to listen to his doctor, and a vacant relationship with his daughters who he doesn’t appear to understand at all. John’s relationship with his own extended family is non-existent, so he attempts to give his all to his wife and daughters, though he remains incapable of forming genuine bonds with any of them.
Barbara, meanwhile, embodies a stereotypical mid-twentieth century middle-American housewife in that her role is to keep the family from imploding. She is more a mostly-silent observer working double time to keep John from bankrupting their entire family—just in case this whole rapture thing proves false—while attempting to elicit some modicum of respect from the increasingly disaffected Elise.
Speaking of Elise, the seventeen-year-old is pregnant, but only Jess knows (though I feel it’s pretty clear by the end that Barbara is not as oblivious as her daughters might think). Elise is “the pretty one,” the cheerleader who despises football and maintains an on-going texting relationship with the would-be father of her yet unborn child. Fifteen-year-old Jess, on the other hand, is the slightly more childlike set of eyes through which we view this barely functioning family’s journey. Jess compares herself unfavourably to Elise in that she sees herself as more dishonest, prone to doing things their parents would disapprove of, but being better at hiding such things than Elise, who wears her rebellion for the most part on her sleeve. Jess is certainly more outwardly sympathetic toward their father than Elise, who sees through his bullshit and his litany of insecurities.
As the novel progresses, we witness first-hand as Jess is slowly stripped of her restraint, how she in very little time jettisons all lingering remnants of her childhood in favour of experiences that she may or may not ever have the opportunity to know, depending on whether or not the rapture comes to pass. In this sense, she takes on the role of the tacit doubter, split between loyalty to her parents—specifically her father and his quite singular vision—and the pull of Elise and the more carnal aspects of life she represents, unburdened as she is by concern for her parents or their approval (believing herself in their eyes a mistake, a disappointment).
It isn’t until Friday—the third day of their journey—that the depths of their family’s secrets are truly brought to light: Elise confronts Barbara about their father losing his job, questioning how they will ever pay for this journey if the rapture turns out to be nothing but a baseless scare; Barbara makes clear the importance of their family’s perceived reputation, whatever the cost of their deceitful behaviour; and Jess reveals to Elise the possible abuse she experienced at the hands of their pastor. And by the time the book’s title is uttered in context, it’s clear that both girls have abandoned all pretences of faith and, without outwardly saying so, have moved out from beneath their parents’ shadows. By the novel’s end, they are all of them transformed via their stubborn, near-destructive tendencies, having seen clearly the limitations of faith.
Mary Miller’s novel is an effective, disarming coming-of-age narrative—more so than many I’ve had the pleasure of reading in recent years. It achieves this by being, more often than not, blunt and wonderfully un-dramatic. Save for a car accident the family witnesses early on, there is little to no “action” in The Last Days of California. Miller uses low-key, understated language to underscore the severity of the family’s choices rather than striking through them violently or with unnecessary gravitas; the drama portrayed is more a blade unexpectedly and effortlessly slipping between two ribs as if the victim was sheathed in cheesecloth in place of skin.
Similarly, the details of their future in the wake of the (naturally) false Second Coming are left thankfully vague: did Elise really miscarry or is something else the matter with her? Did John actually win big at the casino or will they be left horribly in debt by this whole ordeal? The family’s quick rebound following the non-event that was the rapture is handled expertly—the novel’s final moments feel deliberately misleading, as if a happy and bright blanket has been tossed over them, quickly engulfing all their fears and concerns, only it’s not a blanket at all but a death shroud and they are all too oblivious to its true and destructive nature toward their family as a singular and intact unit.
Miller’s writing is strong and economical, and services the tone of Jess’s observations quite well. The novel is loaded with often-brilliant single-line bullets of observation. For example:
I loved that—“I have many people in this city.” The Bible could be so beautiful sometimes, if you could forget it was the Bible.
Aesthetically, Miller’s novel feels trapped between epochs: the moment to moment journey is reminiscent of a 1980s road trip where the whole family crams into a station wagon and ventures off to parts unknown a la National Lampoon’s Vacation, but peppered throughout with enough modern references and conveniences—Urban Dictionary, smart phones, and text-based relationship neurosis—to remind us of its modern setting. As such, handing out paper tracts in a digital age appears unapologetically anachronistic—as clear a commentary as any on the family’s uncomfortable straddling of time periods, which itself is clearly criticizing their apparent struggle to move forward with their lives, revealing to one another their otherwise dishonest selves.
I greatly enjoyed The Last Days of California. Miller’s novel is slight on revelations, contrary to what one might expect given the end-of-times umbrella that starts them on their journey in the first place. But it’s through this restraint that we’re given a surprising amount of depth as Jess quietly, sometimes dangerously gives witness to the unstated death of her own faith.