‘Kill Me Now’ is a jump in the pool in the middle of summertime

Monday, February 12, 2018 - 12:01pm

Think back to your middle school memories of summer. If your early teenage experience was anything like mine, you spent a lot of time meandering between different friend groups, arguing with your siblings and sometimes babysitting them, watching TV and wandering around the streets of your hometown. There’s a lot of free time in the average 14-year-old’s summer, when you’re stuck between not having to go to school and being too young (in most places) to get a job.

Timmy Reed’s “Kill Me Now” captures the feeling of a teenage summer more thoroughly and successfully than many other novels in its genre  and there are a lot. The coming-of-age story is one of the most popular narratives out there, and understandably so: In trying to capture the complicated transition between childhood and adulthood, one can’t help but bring a ton of other emotions and relationships into the fold. It’s fascinating to think about the changes that happen to people during their lives, because these changes are what expose us for who we really are.

Part of what makes “Kill Me Now” work so well is its epistolary format. The book functions as the summer journal of Miles Lover, a 14-year-old skateboarder who lives in Baltimore. We learn about Miles the same way we would learn about any kid based on their journal: in bits and pieces. One entry will be about his parents, who are frequently fighting, and between whose houses Miles is constantly on the move. The next will be about a nature documentary Miles was recently watching, or just a thought he’d been holding in his head. He writes down what he does when he’s all by himself, what he thinks about his identical twin sisters, what his earliest memory is. And it’s through these random, disjointed musings that we come to understand him, as a narrator and as a person.

On the one hand, the journal entries (which aren’t even dated) do lend the book kind of a plotless, meandering feel at times. But the book isn’t presented as anything other than a journal, and ultimately, the lack of a discernible plot is a big part of what makes the story so convincing. Even though nothing is outright announced to us, we are able to track Miles through several understated journeys: A fight with his mother that he can’t figure out how to resolve, a hatred of his younger neighbor that ends up becoming a friendship and — perhaps most prominently — a kinship that develops between Miles and his elderly neighbor, Mister Reese.

If this book is an immersive plunge into the realistic adventures and musings of a teenager, Mister Reese’s character feels like the one element that might be just slightly too farfetched to be believed. He fits a little bit too snugly into the “relatable old man who casually teaches valuable life lessons to a punkish teenage kid” archetype. That being said, he is made relatable through his dialogue, his relationship with Miles (which starts out business-focused, with Miles regularly selling him weed) and above all, the specificity of his actions.

The precision in this book is ultimately a big part of what makes it stand out. Miles takes care to describe not only the picture-filled interior of Mister Reese’s home, but also the chlorine blue of the nearby pool, the sight of ants crawling in melted ice cream, the darkness of the cemetery where his sisters abandon him during Hide and Go Seek Flashlight Tag. He goes to special lengths to call out Baltimore landmarks on nearly every other page — his friends live “over in Towson” or “in Owings Mills,” he goes skating in Fells Point and Homeland — which makes for a vivid setting that undoubtedly comes from Reed’s own Baltimore upbringing. What’s more, Miles usually balances out his keen descriptions with some understated thought about the world around him, or himself as a person.

A believable teenager, he does this all offhandedly, and he usually plays off any really deep observations by making a joke or saying something superficial right afterward. But through his consistent voice, he reveals himself time and time again as an observant, compassionate person who, despite appearances, really cares about the world around him. He takes a particular interest in animals of all kinds, and thinks hard about his family members’ happiness even after yelling at them in real life.

Reed’s crowning achievement in “Kill Me Now” may be his ability to offer a three-dimensional picture of Miles’s world using only journal entries. He is aware of the dilemma that the format presents — the fact that we’re only getting Miles’s perspective of events after the fact, and that this might not be entirely objective — but he manages to twist that dilemma so that, in the end, it works more as an advantage. You can’t help but believe that you’re reading the journal of Miles Lover, a real teenage kid who smokes weed and has crushes on girls and hangs out in the now-vacant house that used to be his childhood home. And even though Miles isn’t real and the journal is a novel, it still feels like you’ve come to know somebody a little better by the time you finish reading it.