Seventeen-year-old Thomas led a walled-in life. Literally. In the Kentucky town he grew up in, the Army Corps of Engineers built an enormous floodwall to protect sleepy Paducah from the Ohio River. Instead of looking out into a horizon of infinite possibilities, Thomas saw nothing but concrete walls. So he ran.

The Best People in the World, by Lewis and Clark visiting professor Justin Tussing, details Thomas' prodigal flight into the outside world. Together with Alice, his teacher whom he's bedding, and Paducah's miscreant version of Boo Radley, Shiloh Tanager, the three become self-styled fugitives from Middle America. Stealing off in the middle of the night, they wind up in rural Vermont, where they squat in an abandoned home for the better part of a year, and their off-the-grid lives there constitute the bulk of the novel. Thomas, Alice, and Shiloh revel in their drop-out living, squabble, pass holidays, have adventures, cry, fornicate, etc. etc. etc., and for the most part, the story's wonderful. But Tussing's novel is riddled with distractions and tangents that threaten to undermine the entire enterprise.

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Most egregious is a subplot about two priests who investigate "miracles" around the globe, but their story doesn't collide with the central plot until the last chapter. Another roadblock to reader immersion: Thomas, who narrates the book, flashes to the present day to quickly fill us in on what happened to him after this '70s-era story, and lets it drop that he was later falsely accused of harboring child pornography. WTF? You spend the rest of the book waiting to see how that happens—nothing in the book points in that direction—but it's never brought up or alluded to again.

The meat of The Best People in the World is grade-A. The story of the three runaways camping out in solitude is a perfect idea for a novel, and Tussing slam-dunks chapter after chapter. But when he's off, he's off, and instead of letting us spend time with the characters whom we've grown affection for, we have to whittle away countless pages with minor characters and dead-end foreshadowing. In the end, The Best People in the World is 85 percent great story, 15 percent distracting filler.

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