• Peyton Marshall
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 336 pp.

In this debut novel set in the not-too-distant future, the sons of felons are locked up in “schools” before they’ve even committed a crime.

Peyton Marshall’s first novel, Goodhouse, offers the reader an intelligent, likable protagonist who grapples with physical and psychological threats; a fast-moving plot; a romance; and an evil manipulator. Marshall is equally adept at portraying action and evoking mood through images.

The novel is set in the near future. Scientists have isolated the genetic markers for criminal violence. Male children of violent felons who carry the markers are placed in a system of residential facilities, called Goodhouses, owned by a pharmaceutical company. Marshall works in details of the environment smoothly as the action proceeds.

James, the 17-year-old narrator, has been in the system since he was 3. He knows nothing about his family or where he is from. He bears the last name Goodhouse, as all the boys do. Although James refers to the two institutions where he has spent time as “schools,” there is no mention of classes, books, or teachers.

The facilities are juvenile prisons where boys are locked in, beaten, underfed, watched constantly, and used as guinea pigs for drug testing. They have electronic monitoring chips implanted in their bellies. Even intelligent boys with great self-control like James can expect only menial jobs when they leave at age 18.

The novel begins with Community Day, when James and others his age are bused to a nearby suburb to spend time with ordinary citizens. James visits relatives of a doctor at the school and meets the doctor’s daughter, Bethany, a girl his age who has a talent for modifying electronic security devices. James and Bethany connect, she goes to work for her father at the school, and the stage is set for risky meetings, romance, and more.

Years of psychological manipulation have convinced James that he is bad. He tries to root out his occasional rebellious thoughts. He willingly takes a drug to blot out memories.

During his Community Day visit, a woman vomits. In a passage that reflects the sensory deprivation of the school, as well as the debasement he has suffered, James says, “There was so much wealth here, so much half-eaten food, so many textiles and pictures and brightly tinted paint, that even the stench didn’t seem real. Like it must be coming from these borrowed clothes, from the regulation haircut — from somewhere inside me."

As the novel unfolds, it is a pleasure to watch him leave his stunted self behind.

Marshall demonstrates a command of pacing and information flow, bringing James’ terrifying past gradually into the story. At his previous school, he survived a brutal attack by Zeros, religious fundamentalists who believe God wants them to kill the Goodhouse boys because they are evil.

The extent of Zero activity in relation to his present school, the involvement of inmates from the adult prison next door, and the drug experiments conducted by Bethany’s father, including on James, all converge in a complicated plot that Marshall manages to land efficiently. James suffers physically (perhaps a bit too much) but gains psychological freedom and…read the book to find out.

James is a believable and likable young man well worth rooting for, but hold on to your hat as you read Goodhouse. The speed of the novel is both a strength and a drawback. The action and suspense are compelling, but the reader may want a slower pace and a less tidy plot, with fewer coincidences. Bethany, in particular, is so clever and initiates so much action that she feels like a plot device.

James must learn to relate to a girl; he has rarely seen any in his life. When he first meets Bethany, she jokes, but he cannot respond to humor; he has no experience with it. More details like this would have enhanced his portrait.

James’ character is presented well in the early chapters, but later, Marshall allows him only short paragraphs of introspection. Those paragraphs are effective, however, often because of telling imagery.

For example, James relives the night of the Zero attack on his previous school, when some of his friends died. He is outdoors, trying to avoid detection: “I imagined I was dead. I am grass. I am air, I thought. But I was glowing with life, waiting for some treacherous limb to twitch, half wanting to stand up and fight…I was the frost on the lawn. I was the night itself. I was nothing at all.”

The tortures (not too strong a word) the boys suffer at “school” seem as much a part of the American past and present as they do part of an imagined future. If you doubt that, read Nell Bernstein’s Burning Down the House, in which the author recounts the many horrors of our contemporary juvenile justice system and advocates shutting it down. In Marshall’s acknowledgements, she says the impetus for Goodhouse came from memoirs of former inmates of an infamous juvenile prison in California, now closed.

Marshall’s story is not a tract, however. It is a novel worth reading by a woman who has the skill to write more.

Alice V. Leaderman writes fiction, hikes, skis, gardens, and volunteers with a group that promotes the use of native plants. She lives in Maryland with her husband.

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