Reviewed by Aaron Sommers
“We pursue that which retreats from us,” said the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger. The quote pertains to desires, happiness or knowledge–and it also describes the protagonist’s journey in The Wanderers, a fast-paced, eminently readable debut novel by Sarah Barkoff. The novel kicks off in the unsettled world of a post-Hurricane Sandy Long Island, where Sosie Friedman, our unsettled, unreliable narrator, attempts to navigate the turbulent waters of high school while reconciling the death of her mother. Was it an accident? If so, why can’t everyone around her accept that fact? If not, will she be able to unearth the truth of the events? In her plight to find some answers, Sosie will end up nearly dying multiple times, stealing a car, meeting a cast of colorful characters, going on a road trip, brawling and bawling, while she stays rabidly on the trail of a man who may hold all the answers.
Though the concept of this book (a splendid tale full of mystery, macabre and mental illness) stands out among the throng of recent YA titles, Barkoff’s execution is what makes The Wanderers worth reading. Her descriptions are the kind of spice that turns any prose delectable.
There’s the bartender in a Podunk town, whose “tiny bee-stung breasts are pushed up in her strappy tank top,” and a Mcdonalds in Michigan that, “looks more like a Bavarian chalet than a fast food joint” and a boy, whose accent, “is thick and slow, like a dense milkshake that has to be eaten with a spoon instead of sipped from a straw.” It’s all enough to make you hungry for more.
As Sosie befriends (and crushes on) her broody, introspective and sensitive classmate Nolan, she meets his licentious wing-man, Terry, and his girlfriend Casie, who is, “prettier up close with her golden-brown eyes accentuated with a simple flick of black cat-eye liner and these adorable freckles that run along the bridge of her turned-up nose,” the reader is plunged into a world full of uncertainty, and it’s all translated faithfully by Barkoff. Much of the heated back and forth banter takes place within the cramped confines of a car, where none of the four can get away with being quiet— no matter how exhausted they are. Upon waking up and realizing his best bud has eschewed his advice and driven in another direction, we hear Terry exclaim—in an accent, I imagined to be half Keanu Reeves, half Mathew Maconehey—“Nolan, what the hell,” his voice “ full of bro-code disgust.”
After bolting from the miasma of Long Island, these wayward characters—some seeking gnarly waves to surf, others, a quest for the truth— find peril at every corner. Our protagonist gets into more fisticuffs, takes ecstasy, and almost bleeds to death—all before we reach the jaw-dropping conclusion of the story.
Barkoff peppers her prose with a vividness that burns bright off the page, but she delivers it judiciously, and so it’s obvious she trusts her readers. That, of course, is the bedrock of any genuine relationship and is certainly one of the many reasons why The Wanderers is a fantastic book.
About Aaron Sommers
Aaron is a writer and teacher. His short stories have been published by The Emerson Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, and The Olive Tree Review, among others. You can read more about him over at aaronsommers.com or follow him via Twitter (if that’s your thing) @aaronsommers. He lives in New Hampshire, where he’s polishing his first novel, in a house set deep in the woods and on the more inaccessible side of a mountain.