By Domenica Ruta
Domenica Ruta’s first novel, “Last Day,” celebrates the end of the world, an international doomsday holiday that begins on May 27. Like the pagans of old during an eclipse, no one expects to survive the night. People burn their favorite things, settle debts and make dramatic amends, from I’m sorry graffiti to full-page apologies in The New York Times. Oddly enough, no one decides to do much worse than get drunk — no one stabs his mother-in-law, no one drives over a cliff and no one machine-guns the White House.
For 15-year-old Sarah, “Last Day” is “a dramatic holiday of self-inflicted upheaval drawn out into a public performance.” A “sworn asexual,” she has a serious crush on Kurt, a 40-something tattoo artist, and they go off to build a bonfire at the beach. Like the beginning of a joke, a trio of astronauts — an American, a Russian and a Japanese billionaire — celebrate Last Day from space. Bear, the American, believes everything is A-O.K.; vodka-swilling Svec swears he has never vomited in space; and Yuki’s attention is completely absorbed by his twin on earth, symbolized by his devotion to a two-headed mouse pup. The opening flits among the characters, but once the mentally ill but well-meaning Karen shows up, the novel ignites.
Ruta, who is also the author of a best-selling memoir, “With or Without You,” deeply sympathizes with the damaged and their worlds. Karen lives in a group home with Bear’s younger sister, who has Down syndrome, but the bond between them, like that of others in the book, is inconsequential, suggesting that our network of associations, in the end, does not matter.
Despite the heavy subject matter, comic moments leaven the book. The astronauts lasso corn puffs with dental floss and record their cholesterol readings on graphs shaped like penises in the color of their country’s flags. “Oh, the places you’ll go — now or never!” the library display reads. The mall urges customers to “Buy now — before it’s too late,” and Italians believe anyone who doesn’t change his sheets on Last Day will be impotent for a year.
Ruta makes occasional startling observations, as when the tattoo artist is about to seduce Sarah. “Kurt turned his face toward hers like she was the last thing left to eat.” Or when she remarks that women’s answer of “nothing” to the question “What’s wrong?” is “the grenade of all pronouns.” There is a memorable description of a mother whose “cheeks sagged as though her prettiness had been pawed off her face by her children.” Unusual evocations of clouds begin to appear toward the end of the book, as if the reader should see portents in the sky: “Gold clasped unevenly to the edges of a dark, stormy-looking mass.”
Am I giving away anything by saying that the book doesn’t end well? Last Day’s celebrants have already passively accepted the end, indeed normalized it, in today’s parlance. Is this what our current administration has led us to? Is it just a question of when? There’s little mention of fault, and it’s an unexpected relief not to have venal and irrational heads of state quarreling over their red phones. Teenage Sarah strips away all holiday pretense: “Everyone was celebrating an imaginary apocalypse while schools filled with children were bombed by dictators and pipelines leaked millions of tons of crude oil into the sea.”
In this novel, humans behave as if they were just another unconscious species, unaware of their culpability. “Chill,” a storefront preacher urges. Instead of staging a mass die-off from flu as Emily St. John Mandel brilliantly imagined in “Station Eleven,” Ruta is realistic: There are no scrambles to a shelter, no messy survivors, no lingering horrors. “A world … that never ends is even scarier,” Kurt protests. Happy Last Day.
Terese Svoboda’s most recent book is “Great American Desert,” a collection of stories.
By Domenica Ruta
272 pp. Spiegel & Grau. $27.
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