It’s a well-established fact among people who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s that falling into quicksand is, objectively, the most terrifying way to die. This is one reason you might find Davida G. Breier’s debut novel “Sinkhole” (University of New Orleans Press, 2022), which features the local equivalent of quicksand – that is, sinkholes that randomly open up under a shallow, muck-bottomed lake north of the Everglades, pulling everyone around them to their doom – a fine, Florida-filled, summer thriller.
But the quicksand in this angsty coming-of-age story isn’t just physical. As protagonist Michelle Miller makes the long drive from Atlanta to her central Florida hometown to help her ailing mother, she edges ever closer to a destructive whirlpool of grief, fear, and self-loathing. Why? The novel’s opening sentence explains: “When I was eighteen, I killed my best friend.”
That’s just the first rumblings of trouble. As the miles creep by, Michelle flashes back to memories of two best friends: Sissy, a troubled, mercurial rich girl who “adopts” the awkward, athletic, and underprivileged Michelle, and Morrison, a punk-rock bibliophile in a denim jacket who struggles with his spaced-out mother and closeted sexuality. Here the novel offers one of its more interesting angles, exploring delicate intricacies of trust, betrayal, and friendship among teens, and painting a poignant picture of growing up fatherless, poor, and queer against the backdrop of 1980s mall rat culture and the AIDS epidemic.
After a lengthy, brooding buildup, the novel’s concluding chapters accelerate, and much of what Michelle thinks she knows about her past starts to collapse as suddenly as – you guessed it – a sinkhole.
“Sinkhole” will definitely inspire some nostalgia in readers of a certain age, rich as it is in references to 1980s culture and mores, and many readers will relate to the characters’ struggle to survive in the Teenage Wasteland. For all the novel’s atmospherics, however, Michelle’s narration feels a bit stilted, as if she’s having trouble finding her voice, which may be entirely appropriate for a character who is prone to insecurity and is often reluctant to speak. But her lack of agency in critical moments in the story may leave you wanting to shout, “Pay attention! Don’t step there! That’s OBVIOUSLY quicksand!”
Still, if you are looking for a story that combines the murky angst of teen relationships with the heart-pounding, decisive closure those relationships almost never have in real life, give “Sinkhole” a try.