Like Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, Lindsey Lee Johnson’s debut novel The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is a story of adolescence written with all of the cringing, irony-laden hindsight of adulthood. The earnest, intimate immediacy of the typical YA voice is completely absent: This book might be about teenagers, but it’s written for adults. And it begins, like all great novels about adolescence do, with trauma.
Tristan Bloch is the most disliked boy in all of eighth grade, who in a beautifully telling detail wears his T-shirts tucked into sweatpants stained with fruit punch. He sends a letter to pretty, popular Cally Broderick, and it is so sweetly earnest and so misguided that you need to read it through your fingers, murmuring, “Oh, no” and “Oh, don’t,” at intervals.
It starts, “You might not think I watch you but I do,” then goes on to inform Cally that “you have the World’s most beautiful skin,” and finishes with the plaintive plea, “Calista I Love You do you think you could love me back? I could help you with your algebra homework sometime. If you wanted.”
Cally, in a torrent of embarrassed disgust, gives the letter to a friend, who gives it to the popular guy Cally isn’t exactly dating but sometimes hooks up with, who posts it on Facebook. Facebook becomes the forum of choice for ripping Tristan apart — “Nobody,” Johnson writes, “bullied him at school” — and eventually the bullying reaches such a pitch that Tristan kills himself.
This is all prologue, in the book’s first 30 pages. The narrative proper begins three years later, when all of the characters are juniors in high school and Tristan’s bullying and death have faded into shadowy, traumatic memories. But their dark history doesn’t stop them from coming together to accidentally ruin someone else’s life.
In each chapter, Johnson narrows her focus to a different character: Cally, Cally’s former friend, Cally’s former hookup, the well-meaning young teacher who enables them all, and all of the other players hovering on the periphery of the narrative. Each character is given an archetype (the striver, the artist, the pretty boy), and much of the pleasure of reading The Most Dangerous Place on Earth comes from the immense specificity Johnson assigns to each one. She doesn’t subvert the archetypes, exactly, but she grounds them in such particular details that they feel new and fresh.
Overachiever Abigail is waiting to move east, where “her unprettiness” can “transform to specialness, or glamour.” The sleazy English teacher who sleeps with his students is writing a novel where all the women are called “females.” The slacker genius has worked out a formula for gaming the SAT essay: “Any question they’re gonna ask, you can answer it using World War II and fuckin’ Martin Luther King.”
Out of these overlapping character studies emerges a portrait of the class itself, this seething group of high-strung, privileged teenagers, as an organism that seems to have a mind of its own. And when the class comes together en masse — online, as in the prologue, or at a house party as in the book’s climax — it makes its power felt. Online, the class drove Tristan to suicide. At the house party, it leaves a promising dancer paralyzed after a drunk driving accident.
What’s exciting about The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is the way Johnson manages to find the individuality in each figure within this class full of traditional high school archetypes, without sacrificing the amorphous horror of the class itself. The book works as both a series of psychological portraits and as a social portrait. You see what makes each member of the class tick, what makes them all likable and childlike. And then you see the group en masse as it casually, thoughtlessly, and inevitably ruins multiple lives, as though it can’t quite help itself.
After all, high school is the most dangerous place on Earth.