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A worthwhile coming-of-age tale

We've barely met Teddy LeClare before his world shatters into fragments as fine and sharp as broken glass.

Just pages into Phil LaMarche's strongly paced debut novel, the teenage Teddy is at home with two of his friends, looking at a .22 that his father keeps hidden under a china cabinet in the dining room. Teddy's mother is out; his father is gone, too, living in another state for work. The two boys ask Teddy to show them how to load the gun. He refuses. They keep asking until he finally he gives in.

What happens next seems inevitable and TV-news real: one of the boys shoots the other, accidentally, and the wounded boy dies. Teddy becomes part of the police investigation that results, and -- even though he didn't pull the trigger -- he finds himself on the spot for the death of his friend. The strength of Teddy's story lies in the deep underpinnings of his character. Teddy is far from a hapless, flaw-free hero -- he's a young man who's troubled in many ways long before the fateful day of the shooting. As the plot unfolds, he skips school, throws makeshift Molotov cocktails around, joins a radical youth group, commits vandalism -- he even gets accused of rape, in a scene that grips us in its believability and complexity.

The coming-of-age story of the American male has a long tradition behind it, going back to the frontier tales of James Fenimore Cooper -- and, at times, it can feel that modern stories in this genre pull all that heavy baggage along behind them. But not LaMarche's novel -- his tale, like the more worthwhile entries in this canon, spins itself out in a way that seems delightfully free of the weight of these predecessors, while still honoring their tropes.

By the end of "American Youth," we care a good deal about Teddy. We watch him take the first small steps toward an assertion of his true self, and we feel buoyed by the acts.

LaMarche, whose family is from Plattsburgh in upstate New York, says that he based "American Youth" in part on his own boyhood, especially the moment when he was 14 and his father, leaving home for a job elsewhere, slid a shotgun under his bed, telling him to use it to defend the house if need be. LaMarche grew up in New Hampshire and currently teaches writing at Colgate and Syracuse.

It'll be interesting to see where his muse takes him next. Meanwhile, "American Youth" is worth your time.

Charity Vogel is a News features reporter.

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>American Youth

By Phil LaMarche

Random House, 240 pages, $22

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