Though it is set at the close of our present century, Peyton Marshall’s debut novel Goodhouse offers a dreary vision of a future that is as much a conceivable alternate history as it is a dystopian nightmare. It’s a morally complex literary thriller closer in pedigree to The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go than the Young Adult series—Hunger Games, Divergent, etc.—that have come to define the genre in the last ten years.
Goodhouse takes place eighty-odd years in the future, when America has worked to curb crime through the compulsory genetic testing of boys. It has been discovered that a certain set of biometric markers determine whether a child will be predisposed to criminal thoughts and actions. Boys who test positive are sent to the Goodhouse system, where they are raised as wards of the state in prison-like boarding schools rife with chronic abuse. Orwellian doublespeak and vicious discipline is meted out to the student body to “correct” their basest impulses. Themes of free will and individuality, common to any book on the dystopian shelf, are key to this story as well.
James does not know if that is really his birth name, nor can he remember his parents. He is the sole survivor of an attack by a radical sect called the Zeroes who seek to destroy the boys of the Goodhouse system before they become adults and are set free. In their eyes, technology has given humanity the chance to identify the future scourges of the world and it makes complete sense to kill them outright instead of rehabilitating them. “They believed that when the world was cleansed of evil, when evil had no more flesh to occupy, only then would the oceans teem once more with life, only then would the weather normalize, the aquifers refill, and the drought break—only then would there be peace.”
After the attack, James is reintroduced to the Goodhouse system through his new school in Ione, California. He has been demoted in class rank, stripped of privileges, and over-disciplined in an effort to force him to rescind his testimony that the disguised men who attacked his old school are also high-up members of the Goodhouse authority. One of those men, Dr. Cleveland, defends James, even in the face of the boy’s accusations, so that he can experiment on him. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s daughter has fallen in love with James and is trying to convince him (perhaps with a bit too much manipulation) that he has the power to expose the system.
Will he get the girl? Will he save the school and defeat her evil father? The action progresses along well-worn genre lines, leading to some of the clunkier passages, such as the moment in which the villainous doctor admits some of his own shortcomings. “I don’t need a heart monitor to know you’re lying, and instinctively I want to dismiss this youthful loyalty that you feel toward one another. I want to diminish it in some way, but I think . . . I think I have merely forgotten what it was like.” Though the writing is sophisticated enough to separate the book from the YA category, the novel does not have Handmaid’s poetic craft nor Never Let Me Go’s sweeping romance.
Marshall makes pointed references in her acknowledgements and in the text itself to the real life Preston School of Industry, a now-closed reform school located in Ione where the novel is set. Known as Preston Youth Correctional Facility before being shuttered, the institution is as infamous for the number of students in its graveyard as it is for the alumni it produced, including musician Merle Haggard, writer Neal Cassady, and actor Eddie Bunker, all respected outlaws in their field. Certain scenes mention Preston and allude to the horrors that occurred there, blurring the lines between fact and fiction and making the action all the more believable. Take this passage: “He told me to wait in what was marked as the old delousing room. It had originally housed a chemical pool. There was a plaque here, too, with a photograph of a mustachioed man pulling a rope tied to a partially submerged boy. I stared at the picture, at the boy in his chemical bath. He was in motion, so his face was a blur—a nothing.” And by not inundating us with the supercomputer gadgetry common in some sci-fi dystopias, Marshall allows the reader to draw these parallels, not only between Goodhouse and Preston, but also with the present-day penal system and the still-existent youth facilities overpopulated with undereducated minorities. The novel is a prescient warning that profiling can be as destructive to a single boy as it can for an entire country.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: September 30, 2014
Reviewed by Andrew Wetzel