Book Review - Not that Twilight

Georgia-raised author Sang Pak spins a gothic coming-of-age yarn

Saturday September 5, 2009 10:00 am EDT

Creepy houses have a way of showing up in gothic novels. Whether a crumbling, cobblestone castle or just a cobwebbed suburban ranch, the creepy house is no less than a beacon, a neon, flashing symbol that something dark and violent awaits. “The houses have grown out of the woods like tumors,” says Samuel on the second page of Sang Pak's Wait Until Twilight while riding through the backwoods of Georgia. When Samuel Polk and his friend David actually arrive at the house they’re looking for, his observation becomes more explicit: “It’s almost as if I’ve seen it somewhere else, maybe in some bad horror movie.”

Samuel is a bookish but friendly teenager, stressed out by the SATs and talented on the basketball court. His mother died a year before the novel begins and he repeatedly tells everyone he’s “completely over it.” If that sounds unconvincing, it should. Samuel bears the stresses of adolescence and the weight of his mother’s death without much support. His brother Jim has all but disappeared since going to college, and his father is emotionally absent.

As the motherless Samuel struggles to come of age, he develops an unhealthy obsession. His friend David introduces him to a set of deformed triplets under the auspices of a “video project” and Samuel is left deeply affected. The triplets are an urban legend of sorts in their fictional town of Sugweepo, Ga., and knowing the reality of their existence is almost too much for Samuel. Their mother claims the babies were “immaculately concepted” and has refused medical care. Daryl, the triplets' older brother, proves to be an ominous relation, a redneck metalhead whose hobbies include skinning animals while alone in the woods. Samuel's convinced he must help the triplets, but how he can is unclear. The images of their deformed faces and bodies haunt him at moments of insecurity. Like a typical teenager, he can think of little to do for them but drive slowly past their “sinister” home, gazing in the windows for a peek.

Samuel’s narration won't win any awards for subtlety, but worse things could be said of a 16 year old. His storytelling falls short of anything lyrical or particularly vivid, especially in his descriptions of Sugweepo. There are enough mentions of kudzu and moonshine, however, to set a scene and offer clear articulation of Southern, suburban boredom. Samuel and his friends drive for hours on long country roads looking for parties that they’ve “heard about ... through a friend of a friend who’s way older.” They cause a minor ruckus at a state fair, chasing through a mirrored fun house while under the influence of a jar of what they call “mountain dew.”    

Their teenage, suburban banalities occasionally cause insidious discoveries, like a pair of well-off teenagers who keep a secluded, David Lynch-ian “sex cabin” or Daryl's disturbing, violent activities. These moments, when the polite varnish of suburban life begins to wear thin, are compelling even if the tropes of gothic storytelling are evident. Past the novel’s midpoint, though, Wait Until Twilight switches focus largely onto Samuel’s coming of age. Some typical milestones are achieved — he loses his virginity, gets in a fist fight, looks in the mirror and sees the makings of a man — and it seems Samuel has survived the gauntlet of adolescence. Unfortunately, the plot shift strays far from the story's original, more macabre direction. Bringing the disparate plot lines back together requires a coincidence of timing so great, most readers will find it difficult to believe.

Georgia-raised Pak has spun a mostly genuine Southern yarn with Wait Until Twilight, but we’ll have to wait for his next to see if he can weave a little tighter.  

Wait Until Twilight by Sang Pak. Harper Paperbacks. $13.99. 240 pp. 

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