In Mary Miller's debut novel, "The Last Days of California," teenager Jess and her family embark on what they believe will be one last road trip before being whisked away to heaven. From Alabama to California, Jess' father leads the charge, wanting the family to "experience the real America before it's too late." He makes Jess and her older sister, Elise, wear T-shirts that say, "King Jesus Returns!" and urges them to pass out tracts at diners and gas stations. At 15, Jess is ambivalent about most things — music, belief, her self-worth — and she latches on to the secretly pregnant Elise for guidance.
The family's faith doesn't preclude normal teenage angst. On the first night, when the family stops at a motel, Elise sneaks their parents' whiskey and pressures Jess to drink with her. On the second night, the girls meet some local boys, and Jess bumbles through her sexual awakening in the back of a truck.
The raison d'être for the novel vanishes, and Miller offers up a good old-fashioned coming-of-age tale, laden with double scoops of pop culture and fast food. Jess spends most of the trip trying to parse out the questions that muddle the adolescent mind: Is she desirable? Will she ever have a boyfriend? Will anyone — her family most of all — ever make any sense?
Jess' parents are mostly content to drive, eat Taco Bell and let the girls do what they want. Jess' mother listens to Joyce Meyer sermons. Her father, instead of entertaining Elise's doubtful musings, scans the radio for a program called "Revive Our Hearts."
Still, you never get a clear sense of the family's convictions. What does this pilgrimage mean to the parents? Why don't they spend more time talking about their last few hours on Earth? By Day Two, the end of days feels more like a conceit needed to get the arc of the narrative climbing rather than a fully fleshed motif. Jess' back-seat ruminations on lust and eternity do manage some pithy pieces of world wisdom, but they feel more like easy jabs at America's infatuation with fatty food and eschatology.
That's not to say that Miller's novel is fundamentally flawed. There's plenty here: family secrets, sexual firsts, teen pregnancy. But more than a few scenes feel amiss, with Miller skirting the tensions. In one scene, Elise races off with a forty-something local, but when she returns, there's no fire-breathing reprimand from her parents. Her mother simply demands Elise's fake ID, and everyone goes to bed.
But what irks is also what pleases: In all her sharp-tongued criticisms and ambivalences, we recognize Jess. And we recognize the passive parents who would rather shrug than argue. Breezy, colloquial, with little or no flourish to her speech, Jess, in the end, proves acerbic, straightforward, awkward, afraid and strangely charming.
Josh Cook is editor at large of Minneapolis-based "Thirty Two Magazine."