The Second Coming by Garth Risk Hallberg

To start, I am a reader with a penchant for precocious young protagonists: Esch, the pregnant, 14-year-old storyteller in Jesmyn Ward’s voluptuous Salvage the Bones; Simons Everson Manigault, from Padgett Powell’s first novel, Edisto, whose eccentric mother more than encouraged her pre-teen son’s literary genius; Salinger’s near-mythic Holden Caulfield; and my own favorite voice (probably) of all time, the also pregnant Dewey Dell Bundren’s in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, who explains herself to us by saying, “I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth.”

I like them young and smart. I think children are shorter and less wrinkled adults, who observe and intuit the craziness of the lives that surround them just fine; the catch is that without the callouses created by experience, they absorb every hurt. So I appreciate the honesty and cost of their aperçus.

For that reason, among others, I was sporadically entranced by Garth Risk Hallberg’s new novel, The Second Coming, a family epic with perhaps too many characters and storylines but also with a wonderful and troubled 13-year-old girl at the center of it, Jolie Aspern, who is wise and battle-tested beyond her years, thanks to the self-centeredness and immaturity (literally) of the parents who had her at 19, just children themselves.

At the launch of this story, Jolie has been living in Manhattan alone with her mother—now an academic, stoic and work-obsessed—and has not seen her ne’er-do-well father in years.

One day she accidentally drops her new cell phone onto the train tracks at rush hour. Fresh from meditation at a Zendo she found to ease her depression and loneliness after school, and drunk from the alcohol she filches for the same reasons, she decides to descend from the platform to retrieve it when a train approaches the station. After a few hair-raising moments, she is saved from suicide-by-subway by a Good Samaritan with strong arms.

During a short stay at Bellevue, she meets a rich, 16-year-old-suitor in the ward before her mother, in flagrant denial, gets her released and takes her home, without understanding the perils Jolie faces.

All of this brings Dad back from California, where he has been working as a property-maintenance man while trying to stay sober. When we meet him, he feels familiar. Not only is his name Ethan, he is a character Ethan Hawke has played before: a charismatic, undependable, hot, sexy man-child who makes everything about himself.

This Ethan, importantly, is and has always been hopelessly addicted to drugs. Living semi-monastically on almost nothing on Catalina Island has helped him not to use for a while. He risks that fragile balance to come see the daughter he has all but abandoned, out of ego and enduring love.

The dance of life and death between these two characters, father and child, is the heart and soul of this book, a complex, moving, insanely passionate, frightening, and weirdly hopeful story of “I can’t quit you.” It takes the two of them on a journey back to Ethan’s hometown of Ocean City, Maryland, for a memorial for the father he hated, and on Thanksgiving, no less, so it is also an encounter with the family of origin he has recklessly severed himself from. Here, this estranged and entangled duo create such epic danger in a mere 48 hours it is a wonder that they both survive.

Hallberg is a smart and talented writer who likes to take risks. This impulse plays out in a mixtape tactic of roving narrators that kind of, sort of, works, but was not perhaps necessary? Certainly, music is a big part of this novel, and music lovers will get pleasure out of the way Halberg captures its mysterious ability to salvage and save.

What brought me down were endless pages of backstory: Ethan’s mother’s artwork; his boring, distant father; a not-to-be believed relationship with a former parole officer who is so entranced by his nonsense that she, too, risks all to save him; and handfuls of extraneous characters who added little.

The result for me was a core story with power, a million and one amazing details, and many pages I would have chosen to skip if I hadn’t been asked to review them. It’s a B+ from an A talent who got caught in the weeds, worth reading for the dazzling parts and the colossal effort behind this heartfelt but muddled endeavor.

Helen Schulman is a New York City–based writer and professor. She is the author of several books, including, most recently, Lucky Dogs, named one of Oprah’s 10 Best Novels of 2023