Lindsey Lee Johnson. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth. New York: Random, 2017. E-book.
Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are.
- “The Rich Boy” Fitzgerald
I was not sure whether to review this book. Not every book I read is worth sharing. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, if anything, is sadly too real. The main characters are mostly teenagers—teenagers with foul language and few morals. If the reader can put up with those things, then the story is worth sharing. If nothing else, the author is a skilled storyteller.
There are numerous short sections narrated by different characters in the story, mostly students. It follows the students from eighth grade, then to eleventh, and finally to twelfth grade. There are two notable things about these students: (1) They live in Marin County, California, and (2) Most lack any type of self-control or ethical framework. The book is sad, pathetic, and infuriating all at the same time. It is similar to The Art of Fielding with people who are less sophisticated (i.e., teens instead of twentysomethings, public school teachers instead of professors).
The tale begins with Callie and some other eighth graders. Tristan, an overweight social outcast, develops a crush on Callie, who at least treats him as a human being. Without giving too much away, Tristan dies tragically and Callie blames herself.
When we see Callie again in her junior year of high school, she has a completely different set of friends, does drugs, and goes by her given name of Calista. She is one of a number of kids in whom the young English teacher Miss Nicoll sees potential but who themselves seem indifferent to school.
This indifference frustrates some of the parents because Marin County is very affluent and they expect their kids to go to good colleges, viz. Berkeley, Stanford, or one of the prestigious technical or East Coast schools.
Most of the kids’ families have lots of money. Even the high schoolers drive BMWs. One student makes good money taking the SATs for other students. (The College Board should read how he does it, if they have not already!)
We meet two teachers who seem to take an interest in the students. Besides Miss Nicoll, there is Mr. Ellison, though it turns out that he takes an interest in students in order to seduce them. He attempts the same with Miss Nicoll.
The culmination of the novel is a wild, senior-year party at the house of Elizabeth on a weekend her mother is out of town. Elizabeth has done some modeling and is gorgeous. She has learned to distance herself from people so as not to be taken advantage of. The story hints that she may have had a #MeToo moment at a photo shoot.
Elizabeth herself really does little at the party except to try to keep the over 100 kids in her house from trashing the place. The book alludes to The Great Gatsby a few times, and while this is wild and loud like a Gatsby party, it is more crude. Some might call it an orgy.
By the end of the book one cannot help but think of what The Great Gatsby says about the spoiled rich people in that story:
They were careless people…they smashed things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made…
There is a great deal of sadness about the story. The kids have nothing to live for, and they know it. Their parents are either indifferent and distant or smothering. Many are divorced like Elizabeth’s. The one teacher who seems to take an interest in them is rebuked by the principal for becoming too friendly with them.
Religion is pretty much dismissed. Christians are blown off in one sentence because they do not believe in abortion. (We can probably guess that some of the characters in our story have had them.) There is a vague Left Coast affection towards Buddhism, but it is mostly symbolic. The only hope is even a vaguer humanistic wish that maybe a few Calistas will emerge somewhat whole.
There is not a single sympathetic male character except possibly the mother-smothered Tristan. All the other boys and men, including fathers, are at best indifferent and at worst pigs and cads. Some like Mr. Ellison and M.C., a hustler from Los Angeles, can only be called predators.
If this novel is to be believed, the hard-core urban high school portrayed in the novels by J. E. Solinski gives students a better chance than the affluent Marin County school portrayed here.
In the background is the Internet, notably Facebook. Facebook, like Elizabeth’s party, is another dangerous place where the students lack any restraint. Anyone familiar with teens, Facebook, and cell phones in general already know this, so the story is not shocking. It is simply sad.
As with The Art of Fielding, I am reminded of the line from Tim Buckley:
Godless and sexless directionless loons
Their sham sandcastles dissolve in the tide…
America, where are your grownups?