By Brock Cole
Farrar Straus Giroux. 183 pp. $11.95
A BOY and a girl -- outcasts at the expensive summer camp where their well-meaning but distracted parents have parked them for the summer -- are stripped of all clothing by their fellow campers and left on an island to fend for themselves. But instead of waiting until morning to be rescued, these two vow that they'll never return to the camp that made them "goats," and head out into the world alone. The handful of days they spend together is the subject of Brock Cole's small and extraordinary first novel.
There's an almost classic feeling to this story: echoes of Adam and Eve, Lord of the Flies. But where Adam and Eve were banished from the garden (and never knew innocence again), it's only once these two youthful heroes have been shut out of camp that they find any goodness. And where the characters in Golding's novel were left to survive outside of civilization (and create their own harsh order), Cole's "goats" make their way swiftly back to the world of fast-food restaurants, motels, bus stations and highways, but discover there, with each other, more dignity and compassion than anything the adult world has yet constructed for them.
They break into an abandoned summer cottage, where they find food and enough clothing that they can circulate in the world. Their plans are vague: the two know only that they mean to locate the girl's mother, and return home with her, together, when she comes to camp on Parents' Weekend. In the meantime, they briefly join up with a group of campers very different from the ones who made them goats (inner city black kids, who display a good deal more humanity than the ones from "better" families back at their old camp). They scrounge money, food, and shelter where they find it. Over the course of their adventure, they discover not only their own strength, but also, each other.
Clearly, the plan of those who left them on the island was that the boy and girl should be thrown together in the most inescapable way, sexually. (Naked. With no one to turn to except the other one.) But though, at 13, both characters are filled with sexual stirrings, what happens between the two has much less to do with sex than with friendship. Like Stephen King -- another writer who has dealt often in his fiction with youthful outcasts subjected to the cruelty of their peers -- Cole has a rare ability to write the kind of dialogue 13-year-olds might actually speak: secrets one minute, hamburgers the next and much left unsaid. Neither character ever sits the other down and recounts the story of his life. (A day or two passes, in fact, before they learn each other's names.) And still, it is utterly convincing that, by the end of their week together, the thought of being parted against their will (as the well-meaning adults whose world they're returning to have in mind) is not just sad, but actually painful.
THE REASON they were chosen as goats in the first place, it's plain, is that they are each, for separate reasons, lacking in the kind of cool behavior that passes among adolescents for maturity. The boy is small for his age, the girl can't swim; they both wear glasses. But a transformation occurs, once they're on their own. They steal some spare change, almost right out from under the owners' noses. They pose as the children of a family that has just left its motel room vacant, and even charge a meal in the motel dining room to the tab of their invented father. And when a crude sheriff's deputy attempts to apprehend them, they steal his Jeep. Back in the real world, grown-ups control their lives. But now, suddenly, the boy and girl feel powerful. Although they know something else too: that "they were really strong only when they were alone."
Brock Cole stretches the reader's credibility some, with the street-wise competence of his two sheltered heroes, as he does with the exaggerated cruelty of the camp director, who views the goat ritual as a harmless prank. It's a little hard to believe this boy and girl would really be so skillful and unflappable at pulling off a heist of clothing at a beach, or so brazen as to camp out in someone else's motel room. But what takes place between the two 13-year olds -- the odd combination of childlike friendship and early sexual urges -- rings absolutely true. The night the two spend in the motel room together -- wrapped in each other's arms, and flipping the channels of the television set from an X-rated film to a Benji movie -- is a powerful portrait of innocence on the brink of experience. Nothing happens (in technical terms). But more takes place between the two than might have between two other teenagers having sex.
I've been asking myself what age a young person should be to read and understand The Goats. Some school librarians and teachers, and parents, will doubtless be made uneasy by this novel (and maybe they should be). The book is meant to make a person think about uncomfortable things. And meant, I think, as a kind of guerrilla handbook for young people at a time in their lives when a good deal of sorting out and separating from the adult world is taking place. Realistically, of course, the only way most 13-year-olds will get their hands on the book is to have some adult give it to them. But once it's in the hands of a young reader, the feeling Cole's novel generates, I think, is that the book is for him, or her, alone. The Goats contains some secrets about being 13. (And because of that, 13 is probably the best age to read it.) It's a rare writer who, far from adolescence himself, manages to capture it as well as this one has.
Joyce Maynard's books include the essay collection "Domestic Affairs" and the children's book "New House."