Lead narrator Gage Chandler writes true crime - “the crimes people tell stories about, and the secret ones our stories seek to conceal.” Public attention helps build the stories, as “People get murdered everywhere, but not every murder blooms into myth.”
The book analyzes transitions, friendship, inequality, parenting, refuges from abuse. The teen characters in two of Gage's books, one published and filmed, the other in progress, have parents who neglect them. When mothers try to become close, the sons pull back. "Remembering that children are older than you think they are is one of the most reliable errands of parenthood, and one of the hardest." Teenagers are mysteries whether they come from so-called “good” homes or not, and no good guidance exists for preparing children for every crisis, odd situation or friendship. "But teaching your children to take care of themselves and letting them do it are two different things,” the narrator advises. “The former is a long labor of patience, and focus, and forbearance. The latter requires skills you never have time to learn when you're busy practicing patience, maintaining focus, and picking battles.”
As a writer, Chandler is obsessed with detail and moments when choices are made. "My mother always taught me to take stock of the moment you're in, to not miss the big transitions. 'If you miss one, you don't get the chance to see it again,' she said." At the same time, Chandler regards forgetfulness as a gift. He claims to take pride in his research methods, but repeatedly deviates from his own rules. One example: He recommends letting interview subjects talk at length to share details, but interrupts during a key moment as a former shelter employee describes the patterns of homeless teens.
The book details two crimes in California, more than a decade apart –the story of a young caring teacher who kills and dismembers two students who attempt to burglarize her Morro Bay home in 1972 and murders in a defunct Milpitas pornography shop of 1986. Chandler's editor urges him to write another book about the1986 murders – and Chandler buys the building to recreate the scene. Place and belongings intertwine with personalities, even while Chandler points out that most possessions remain with owners for less than a year. "They get donated to church bazaars when you're done with them; you like to imagine the former things of your daily routine going on to new lives about which you'll never know a thing."
The 1986 case is unresolved with teen suspects but fewer leads and more contradictions. Derrick, described as the quintessential responsible high school senior preparing for college, hangs around the failing porn shop after school to help clean. He retains a key after the owner gives up on the business and invites friends to hang out at the store, including one homeless teen who has returned to the community and needs a place to crash. The e small group employs their art skills to transform the shop into a nightmarish setting that becomes known as the Devil House.
Each teen's identity varies depending on time of day, location or companions. The group of teens in Milpitas in Milpitas are nostalgic, anxious about passing time. Derrick describes the routines he will miss upon leaving his home town - "bike rides on known streets, people he'd known half his life, the many perks of familiarity that only feel like burdens if you fear never being relieved of them." Another friend comments, "Even when we don't find ourselves doing something wild, we sort out several selves along the line as we're becoming the people we will be.... Most of the time, it's hardly even worth trying to remember how it happened. Most of the time, no one will care." Another character confides during an interview: “Am I the same person I was when I was young? Are my earlier selves still safe somewhere inside me? Is there a thread somewhere that connects the past to the present, or is everything more chaotic than we’d like to think?” The same questions clearly bother Chandler.
The book is peppered with hints that the crime stories and Chandler’s own story are riddled with untruths. At one point, a character confides that “your mind could be your best friend or your worst enemy.” And a teen girl admits “there’s a gulf between the girl I was then and the person I grew up to be; when people want to talk to me about it, I feel like I’m telling them a tory from somebody else’s life.” Chandler concedes that he does not trust observations: “there’s a considerable distance between the things we’re called to bear witness to and the things we’d prefer to see.” All the characters have secrets that, as Chandler puts it do their work in shadows.
During the course of writing the second story, Chandler receives a lengthy note from the mother of a teen victim in the 1972 case that shakes his confidence. She expresses dissatisfaction with his book, even rage, trying to convince him that her son's life had good moments and worth, despite lifelong abuse from his father and her own complicity. Jesse was a follower, whose only friend plotted the crime that got them killed. Gene was mean, angry, controlling – a friend tough enough to intimidate the abusive father. The mother tragically concludes about that friendship, “How he must have felt like he had finally gotten lucky in life.”
The end of the book takes an abrupt turn with a new narrator. A childhood friend learns that Chandler published crime fiction, but delays reading his most successful book. “Such enthusiasms are like the tides; you can’t usually fight them effectively, but you can learn to wait them out.” The two men eventually reconnect and readers can’t help but wonder if one or both men might be connected in some way to crimes mentioned in the book - or at least understand the nature of abuse.
As children, the men were lived in the same town, San Luis Obispo, not far from the setting of the 1972 crime, for two years, before the friend moved to Milpitas, the setting of the second crime. The two men connect and find “It is disorienting to inhabit, even momentarily, any space that has played host to one or more primitive drafts of the self you’ve now become. There can be pleasure in this, as in a reunion. There might also be fear, dread horror.” The visit focuses attention on Chandler's reliability and the friend finds himself questioning Chandler's success.
Childhood is a distant, unattainable land – the source of hopes and goals, accomplishments and failures. Parents, teachers, classmates, settings and belongings, shape choices, imaginations and our very beings, limiting or expanding possibilities. “To gaze upon a childhood home through adult eyes to engage in an act of disenchantment. Great doors grow small. Turrets vanish. Emblems fray…. One should revisit such places only after having done some hard calculations. What are we willing to trade for a clear view of things. What are the chances we’ll regret the bargain later on?” He later points out that one’s “earliest friends hold a place of privilege in memory.”
Abused children tend to trust one person, doing less well woith groups, and therefore their stories and choices are limited. Chandler suggests to his friend that stories keep people going, the ones we tell about ourselves and others. “You learn to find the stories you need when you’re a kid, right? You learn to find the stories you need.”
Going back home is not easy. Be wary of reconnecting with childhood friends.