Review: Little Beasts, by Matthew McGevna

Little Beasts, by Matthew McGevna
2015, Akashic Books
286 pp. 
Set in a little town on Long Island in the early 80s, Matthew McGevna's debut novel Little Beasts tells the story of a group of adolescents whose stories cross paths in the worst way possible. Basing his story loosely on an event that occurred in Suffolk County in 1979, McGevna very effectively dramatizes the effects of small-town dynamics and the Cold War on a burgeoning youth.

In 1979, a boy named John Pius (written into this novel as Dallas Darwin, whose father is a minister) went missing one night when he rode his bike over to the local elementary school. He was discovered in the woods nearby the school the next day, covered in leaves and branches, with six rocks lodged in his throat. He had been chased and beaten then murdered by four older neighborhood boys who, influenced by alcohol and drugs, believed that John had witnessed them stealing a bike and would rat them out. McGevna has tweaked this, but the dramatized crime is no less heartbreaking or gruesome.

The novel focuses mainly on three friends - Dallas (mentioned above), and his friends James Illworth (whose father is the town drunk) and Felix Cassidy (whose older brother eclipses him as a big-shot football player). With summer winding down, and with little else to do, the boys scamper about town, hiding in the weeds while watching the cops carry out an eviction, or going into the woods and stealing another group of kids' fort supplies, etc. Their story is countered by that of David - an older boy, a teenager, who plays into the town's feelings of him as an outsider after he paints a controversial mural, but who still looks for approval from his parents, the girl he loves, and his classmates.

Anyone who was ever a teenager will identify with David. He's the most sympathetic character in the story. And he's our killer. Driven to his act by his parents' disregard, his classmates' constant abuse, and what he perceives as his girlfriend's wandering eye (to wit, with Felix's older brother) the build-up to the attack is, dramatically speaking, justifiable. Of course the fact that he is a persecuted character prior to the act does not lessen David's crime, but when I got to that point in the story I was beside myself and crying - not so much for the victims (in the story, all three boys are attacked by David and two others, but only Dallas meets John Pius' fate), but for David, both as he reaches his boiling point, and as he struggles to bring himself back when it's too late.

The story has shades of Stephen King's "The Body" (on which the film Stand by Me is based), but even more interestingly resembles Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes in which the character of Peter is certainly driven to a much darker place by comparison, but in which we see and understand the unchecked emotional abuse and are meant to understand, empathize and, eventually, forgive. The real-life perpetrators of the crime against John Pius in 1979 were certainly not saints, but given the illustration of David as a kid crying for help in a town that turned its back on him, one cannot help but consider that they were all children once, too.


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