Teenage chaos crashes like a wave
Novel explores tragedy of young people’s decisions
Jeff Beamish Oolichan Books
In his debut novel, Sneaker Wave, Vancouver journalist Jeff Beamish peels back layers of teenage chaos to show the tragedy that ensues when young people make terrible decisions.
Being 17 can be tough, and Beamish hurls a great deal at Brady Joseph, who lives in a small town on the Washington state coast. The deck is stacked against Brady and his two friends, Sam and Luke. When he is five, Brady witnesses his father’s suicide and tries to tell people that it was an accident.
Fast forward 12 years in an abandoned house full of drunk and stoned teenagers to another tragedy, which Brady again tries to say is an accident. The three boys and Sarah, Brady’s troubled and manipulative girlfriend, band together in an attempt to protect themselves after neighbour Tom Opal, who complains about the party, ends up dead.
Beamish ably shows how confused young people can be. Brady is a thoughtful guy who tries to see his way out of the mess, but his limited prospects and peer pressure don’t help. And none of the three boys has a parent he can confide in. Brady’s mother loves him but isn’t the most responsible person. Sam’s parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses and while he lives with them, he tends to steer clear of family life. Luke’s family situation is the worst, and he copes with violence.
One strength of the novel is that it doesn’t blame ineffectual parents or social class for the disasters of the children. Obviously, lousy parents don’t help, but Sarah comes from a prosperous family. And her parents try to do whatever they can, although nothing works.
Sex, drugs and alcohol are feeble Band-Aids for the pain of these teenagers before Opal’s death; and afterward, nothing really works. The novel shows how these four try to go on with their lives while living under a storm cloud of suspicion.
For much of the novel, Beamish effectively maintains suspense about what really happened the night tragedy strikes Opal. But as their lives decay, the intense rot begun that night works its way to the surface.
The Sneaker Wave works smoothly as a symbol. The huge unexpected wave that crashes on the shore, potentially dragging someone out to sea, is like the moment of the bad choice. It’s easy to see how teenagers get caught in their own web of deceit, and then how they pay for it for years.
The beautiful landscape of the Pacific Northwest is central to the novel. Brady’s father jumps off a bridge, and Brady likes to jump off a cliff. Brady’s playful jumps into the ocean not only mirror his father’s suicide, but also demonstrate his desire for purification.
The guilt the four teens bear, due to the burden of secrecy, snakes through their lives relentlessly. And how it all plays out makes sense. Beamish handles his material effectively and sensitively.