The God of War

By Marisa Silver

Simon & Schuster. 271 pp. $23


Reviewed by Frank Wilson


At the very beginning of Marisa Silver's

The God of War

, Ares Ramirez, the narrator whose first name gives the novel its title, relates how "on a spring afternoon in the late 1970s, a boy I knew died of a gunshot wound."

Thanks to "an intrepid young reporter from San Diego . . . the boy who died was forgotten, my brother became the unwitting victim, and I became a hero."

It is a neat summary of the novel's action. But the plot, what old Aristotle called "the soul of the drama" - and this is a novel with a good deal of soul - lies elsewhere. For, as Ares confesses, "I was not a hero that day."

In fact,

The God of War

is not really about the shooting. It is the deeply affecting story of a boy who has learned that "all it took for a life to change irreparably was one moment of nonvigilance, one second of letting go."

Or to think such has happened.

Twelve-year-old Ares (he hates that name, by the way) lives with his mother, Laurel, who works in a spa doing massages, and his younger brother, Malcolm, in a trailer next to Southern California's Salton Sea in a place called Bombay Beach - "not a town really, but a satellite of the nominally larger Niland to the south and the east."

Ares' father "had returned to Guatemala . . . months before I was born." Malcolm's father, called Sam, was a Cahuilla Indian. "Laurel decided she'd had enough of him," so "Sam disappeared from our lives before Malcolm was born."

Malcolm cannot speak. But he can mimic sounds, especially bird sounds, with uncanny precision. "He made an occasional noise - a splice of a hum, a guttural moan . . . Often he stared at one spot on the ground for so long that I thought time would move on without him and leave him stranded, surrounded by the sea of nothingness that I feared was his brain."

Laurel, a terminal counterculturalist whose main squeeze lately has been a Vietnam vet named Richard - "who came and went with the weather" - declines to believe that there is anything seriously wrong with Malcolm. Only Malcolm can get violent. And that is how he and Ares come to make periodic visits to the home of Mrs. Poole, the school librarian, who undertakes to give Malcolm private lessons in rudimentary civilization. It is the condition on which he is allowed to remain in school after one of his outbursts.

In contrast with the ramshackle existence in Laurel's trailer, Mrs. Poole's house is an oasis of order. "I could please Mrs. Poole just by following her rules. . . . At her house, I could reinvent myself as a boy who did things right."

But all is not right in Mrs. Poole's world, either. Childless, she and her husband have adopted a foster child, Kevin, who "had been tossed from home to home like the object in a game of hot potato, while one or another well-meaning soul tried to handle him, then passed him on when the real heat of his nature became untenable."

Kevin is three years older than Ares and is in a juvenile detention center when Malcolm's lessons start. But he's soon back with the Pooles, and he and Ares become, on the sly, buddies of a sort.

As Ares moves from boyhood to adolescence, he feels compelled to rebel against Laurel's laid-back ways. "I felt trapped between a life I had once enjoyed and one that felt miserable and lonely and bitter."

Even his relationship with Malcolm sours. He has always been devoted to his brother, to the point of getting beaten in his defense one day by a pair of toughs. Then, one night, while he is giving him a bath, Malcolm "started to kick . . . I squeezed his wrists tighter and I felt what those boys must have felt when they threw rocks at him: the savage pleasure of hurting someone who was weak. He looked at me not with an expression of pain but of confusion, as if he didn't understand why I wanted to hurt him. I dropped his hands, frightened by how easily I could destroy him and how good it would make me feel."

The story is told from the perspective of 30 years later. In the intervening years, Ares has been a sometime writer, drifting from town to town and job to job. Now he's met someone he may just be able to settle down with. Or maybe not. He has, at any rate, learned much - perhaps too much - about the human heart's "inability to contain all the joy and sorrow that it had to hold."

Beautifully written, with every character rounded and real,

The God of War

is a sad, touching, lovely novel.

Frank Wilson recently retired as the books editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. E-mail him at PresterFrank@gmail.com or visit his blog at http://booksinq.blogspot.com.