Why He Did It
By Jodi Picoult
Atria. 455 pp. $26.95
Early in Nineteen Minutes, Detective Patrick Ducharme walks through a deserted crime scene. Artifacts have been left behind: "the Wonder-bread sandwiches scarred by only one bite; the tub of Cherry Bomb lip gloss . . . the salt-and-pepper composition notebooks filled with study sheets on Aztec civilization and margin notes about the current one: I luv Zach S!!!" It's eerily ordinary -- until you notice the dead bodies.
This is the cafeteria of Sterling (N.H.) High School, shortly after a gunman has killed 10 people and wounded many others. His rampage lasted 19 minutes. As the prosecutor will later point out, "In nineteen minutes, you can mow the front lawn, color your hair, watch a third of a hockey game. You can bake scones or get a tooth filled by a dentist. You can fold laundry for a family of five. Or . . . you can bring the world to a screeching halt."
There's never any doubt that the gunman was Peter Houghton, a 17-year-old student. Hundreds of witnesses confirm it. Now, justice must be accomplished -- properly, and not by an angry mob. It won't be easy in this small town where everybody is connected. Peter's mother, for instance, is the midwife who delivered Josie Cormier. Peter and Josie were best friends until puberty hit and Josie became a "cool girl" while Peter remained a nerd. Matt Royston, Josie's dazzling boyfriend, was Peter's last victim. Josie's mother, Alex Cormier, is the judge who will try Peter's case -- unless she can be brought to recuse herself. And these are only the most salient connections. Dozens of others must be traced as the authorities piece together why the shooting happened.
Parent-child relationships are central to Nineteen Minutes. When you're a teenager, the fact of parents is unavoidable, even when they're not very good at being parents. For Josie's single mother, it's easy to be a judge and hard to be a mother; everything she says "comes out wrong." To Peter, his parents seem equally inept and obtuse. But then, most adolescents find their parents wanting; so how does a normal teenage worldview turn into a homicidal one?
As Picoult answers this question, the sociology of Sterling High School comes to life: nerds and jocks and brains, adults from another planet, school as heaven or hell. For many of us, high school meant self-discovery complicated by acne, prom anxiety and the perfidy of other teenagers. Though we've never been homecoming queen or most valuable player, we've made our peace with our own uncoolness. But at Sterling, a nerd doesn't have that relief. Bullying doesn't officially exist -- ask any grown-up -- but if you're a nerd, you know what to expect. At the very least, cool girls will look at you as if you were a bug on the windshield. If you're lucky, the abuse will be verbal: The guys will call you freak or homo or retard. On a bad day, they'll crush your glasses or stuff you into a locker. Torment could come from any direction at any time, and you live in the adolescent version of post-traumatic stress disorder. For some adult characters in the novel, this diagnosis is news, but no teenager would be surprised to hear it.
Certainly the reader is not surprised to hear about HIDE-N-SHRIEK, the video game Peter created, in which the underdog gets a chance to annihilate the bullies with weapons found in any school building. Peter's ingenuity is appalling and pathetic and almost valiant; like Josie, he's a person of moral complexity.
The adult characters, however, tend to be one-sided and given to making snappy comebacks with a frequency that's entertaining but not plausible. The judge has such gumption and good sense that her refrain of maternal inadequacy just doesn't ring true.
Picoult is the author of 13 other novels, most of them widely popular, but I came to Nineteen Minutes with no previous Picoult experience. It's absorbing and expertly made. On one level, it's a thriller, complete with dismaying carnage, urgent discoveries and 11th-hour revelations, but it also asks serious moral questions about the relationship between the weak and the strong, questions that provide what school people call "teachable moments." If compassion can be taught, Picoult may be just the one to teach it. ·
Frances Taliaferro is a writer in New York.