A familiar setting takes on monstrous proportions in “Hurt People,” a violent debut told with startling intimacy by Leavenworth, Kan., native Cote Smith.
The novel is narrated by an unnamed 8-year-old boy killing time with his older brother in the summer of 1988, when a convicted murderer’s escape from the Leavenworth Penitentiary hangs over the city like a hazy summer rain.
Leavenworth’s prisons loom large in the novel, and, Smith writes, weigh heavily on “the city’s spirit.” The boys’ mother works long hours at a golf course with three ex-cons; their estranged father works overtime on the city’s police force under mounting pressure to catch the escapee. The boys are frequently left alone in their mother’s apartment under strict instruction to stay inside with the doors locked.
Which means: As soon as Mom leaves, the boys bounce for the pool.
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There they encounter Chris, an enigmatic young man with a Cheshire-cat grin who offers to teach them how to dive. The narrator quickly grows jealous of Chris’ relationship with his older brother; we grow wary of a man who ticks off every box on the stranger danger checklist. He’s pushy. He’s secretive. He’s a little too interested in boys half his age.
What unfolds is a coming-of-age-too-soon novel in which innocence and violence collide like weather fronts.
On one side, the narrator’s gut-twisting initiations into the adult world — a strange videotape in his father’s closet, a struggle with his brother turned chilling and cruel. On the other side, the sweet, simple pleasures of childhood — slurping syrupy ice pops from plastic strips, curling up at his mother’s feet while she blow-dries her hair.
Smith masters the hesitant voice of an empathetic but mouse-timid boy. Critics may sneer at mature young people in fiction, but Smith grounds the novel’s striking passages in a child’s understanding and selective attention. We don’t understand the significance of some moments when they arise (neither would the narrator), but they pulse on the page with a sickly energy.
“Hurt People” began as a short story, and Smith makes some minor missteps in its expansion. At times he trips over thickets of conditional sentences — the characters “would’ve heard,” “would’ve thought,” “would have seen.” These passages aren’t problems on their own but symptoms of an unsteady grip on scenes. Smith occasionally veers in and out of specific moments like a car drifting across the centerline.
But the novel is brutally affecting in its feel for the harshest lessons of youth: that bad people often go unpunished, that good people can be made mean by circumstances, that kindness is its own meager reward. We seethe along with the narrator whenever he’s taunted as a “baby” — an insult that makes his impotence plain.
“I was a hero ready to play my part,” he writes, “but no one else got the memo.”
Naivety is a dangerous flaw, Smith seems to say, but it’s one worth having. His characters know redemption isn’t guaranteed, but they claw for it anyway. The result is the strangest breed of page-turner, one that’s plotted like a thriller but plays like a hymn.
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“Hurt People” by Cote Smith (336 pages; FSG Originals; $15)