Nostalgia and serial killers—the two don’t sound too compatible, do they? But in his second novel, Atlanta author Grant Jerkins successfully grafts a bogeyman of skin-crawling proportions onto a poignant coming-of-age story set in the rural Georgia of his youth.
It’s not the first time Jerkins’ childhood has inspired his fiction. In his debut novel, A Very Simple Crime (2010), a memory of getting lost in a dark house one night evolved into a tale of family secrets and murder that reviewers called “an extremely nasty study in abnormal psychology,” a novel whose author seemed “determined to peer into the darkness.”
If possible, the darkness settles even more deeply in At the End of the Road (Berkley Prime Crime), where a car accident Jerkins witnessed at age ten becomes the chilling basis for the disappearance of a young woman during the sweltering summer of 1976. Somewhere, nestled in the paradise of lush cornfields and red-clay roads baking in the heat, where children eat pineapple-and-mayonnaise sandwiches on Sunbeam bread, is a monster hiding in plain sight.
As the story opens, 10-year-old Kyle Edwards, racing down the road on his Schwinn Stingray, pedals into a blind curve—and into the path of an oncoming car. As he skids, the driver swerves and the car flips over into a ditch. After watching the woman driver climb out bloodied and begging for help, Kyle, does what he’ll regret for the rest of his life: He runs away and never tells anyone what he saw.
When the car and all evidence of the crash disappear overnight, Kyle—half relieved, half mystified—continues to deny any knowledge of the accident, even to the police officer who comes around asking questions about a missing neighborhood woman the next day, and soon, his life defaults back to normal.
Normal, that is, for a world that Kyle thinks is “safe—more or less,” but which the reader increasingly sees as filled with mortal dangers: A bull, roaming the open pasture next door, that has already crushed a boy’s spine. Three neighborhood bullies whose ideas of fun verge on a scene from “Deliverance.” Homemade rifles, blowguns and slingshots. Blasting caps buried in the dirt, primed to go off as soon as a curious boy picks one up.
It’s amazing that any of these kids survive childhood.
And then there’s Kenny Ahearn, former church deacon now paralyzed by a stroke, who suns himself in a wheelchair on his front porch, licking his lips and watching the children. He’s the one thing Kyle’s not afraid of. But he should be.
The violence threatening the kids coincides with the disintegration of Kyle’s family. His mother is preoccupied with how to end her lackluster marriage. Her oblivious husband relies on her to handle the children, and barely has a speaking role—even the neighboring cornfield is more alive.
In his portrait of Kyle and his seven-year-old sister (and adoring sidekick), Grace, Jerkins goes straight to the heart of many a child’s predicament: Afraid of punishment, they clam up when they get into trouble. As their daily mischief leads from one disaster to the next, Kyle blames himself and lies to avoid a beating. After even a fire they set fails to expose their misdeeds, Kyle and Grace find themselves the targets of a blackmail scheme all the more hideous for the fact that they’ve hidden their tracks so well, no adults notice anything wrong.
Except for Officer Dana Turpin, Douglas County’s first African-American female deputy. A caring single mom, an outsider—during her investigation of the missing woman, none of the people she visits will even invite her inside their houses—she can see in Kyle what no one else can: “a fearful child, a haunted child.” A boy “too scared to tell” the truth about the scratches on his face or the woman he was the last to see alive.
Jerkins builds his story in brief, effective, dramatic bursts, with most chapters no more than three to five pages each (the longest is ten). Flashbacks of Kyle’s daily life as he attends church services, digs sweet potatoes, watches “Hee Haw” and stalks his older brothers ground the impending horror, as do scenes that capture his grudgingly affectionate dependence on his younger sister and her innocent faith in the powers of her Wonder Woman action doll.
Imagery reminiscent of classic horror films resonates throughout the book, from “Psycho” to “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” to “Nightmare on Elm Street—and not since “Lord of the Flies” have we seen children at the mercy of such meanness from their own kind.
Reinforcing the children’s vulnerability, the most ordinary, harmless elements in their lives—a ballpoint pen, a Coca-Cola pop top, a bicycle ride down a dirt road—turn deadly, and silence and fear can be just as dangerous. In a world where no one is watching, these are the lethal weapons that drive Jerkins’ irresistibly creepy cat-and-mouse tale to its ghastly climax.
Luckily, in a book where kids dream up some of the worst tortures, there’s always the chance the tables will turn.