My rating: 3 of 5 stars
It’s the 1970s in the Pacific Northwest & all the typical teenager angst applies: popularity, figuring out what you want, & wondering if the people you call your friends are decent people. But there’s a weird STD going around, one that causes the kids who are infected to physically change in various ways–some noticeable, some not. The story mainly follows Keith & Chris, two kids who go to the same high school, as they try to figure out how to grow up in a dead-end suburb with ostracism & frustrated hopes at every turn.
I’ve had this on my reading list ever since I came across the Washington Post book review that described the book’s atmosphere as on par with Twin Peaks or the songs of Elliot Smith. And while the story certainly had enough existential gloom to satisfy me, I didn’t totally fall in love with it. Burns’s art is certainly beautiful & has plenty of visual symmetry & there are some interesting parallels that “the bug” can stand in for, like being gay, or poor, or addicted to some destructive behavior. The story itself was plenty of weird authentic moments strung together with a lot of intense what-ifs that didn’t have the same desperation or emotional resonance. (In fact, I wonder if I had read this first before something like Sacred Heart if I would be more satisfied.)
I did really enjoy following Keith’s & Chris’s journeys, although I did tend to lean more towards favoring Chris. She starts out as the pretty girl next door but her frustration with everyone wanting something from her & how that eventually pushes her into loneliness & fierce determination to live on her own terms was very poignant. Or maybe I’m just happy that both of these protagonists were equally well-developed & I could relate well to the female protagonist. (My husband also read this at the same time & he admitted that he really got Keith’s perspective, even though he liked both characters.)
The murders in the woods–kind of a meh plot. It feels like sort of a given that if you leave a group of humans unsupervised & outside of society for awhile, we’re going to start doing terrible things to each other. But, because of my recollection of the original WaPo review influencing my expectations, I did end up sort of seeing the reluctant henchman Dave as a weird double for Elliot Smith. (His mouth deformities; Elliot’s facial scars–memory is a highly associative thing.) Overall, an interesting beautiful read but ultimately diluted by my long wait to get around to it. Another warning for me that if I see something, I should probably read it sooner rather than later.