Tuesday, August 02, 2016


Title: The Smaller Evil
Author: Stephanie Kuehn
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Pages: 256

The Smaller Evil by Stephanie Kuehn is one of the most bizarre books I have ever read. 

Seventeen-year-old Arman Dukoff runs away from home with $2800 stolen from his meth-dealing stepfather, turning his back away from his dysfunctional family, which includes a mother that doesn’t care about him, a stepfather who hates him and a father who has his own set of issues to deal with, to join a retreat that promises to change his life. 

Arman struggles from mental health issues, including ADHD, GAD and GERD. He takes medication to deal with the ills he suffers. The pills held him together the way a plastic bag might hold the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that had long since lost their box.

The retreat is run by Beau, a man who is almost like the founder of a cult. Beau is glib with words. He seems to have all the answers, all the wisdom. Arman looks up to Beau, while Beau, for no apparent reason, seems to take a special interest in him.

Beau promises to cure Arman through quarantine, recuperation and inoculation, processes that make as little sense to Arman as they do to us.

Meanwhile, Dale and Kira, two cool youngsters, have also been invited by Beau and are heading to the retreat. Beau is about to show them a whole new reality. Arman looks forward to the camp, hoping that it will make him a different person, a better one.

The campground where the retreat is to take place is so secluded that Arman believes he might actually be able to change for the better. Before long, he gets into a sexual affair with the cook at the camp, when the cook, again for no reason at all, makes sexual advances to Arman the very first time she sees him.

Very soon, Arman finds that the retreat is very vague about its teachings. Freedom, Discovery and Personal Journey are just words that are mouthed at the camp. Also, there are no rules here. Social mores aren’t followed and there is no privacy at all.

He can’t seem to fulfill the bizarre initiation rites and rituals he encounters at the retreat. And yet he can’t help believe that Beau sees something good in him.

The newcomers are told that they must not take about the past. This is a place for rebirth. For rejuvenation. We make our own stories here. They don’t make us. All very well in theory, except that a while later, the youngsters are asked to talk about their past.

Arman soon realizes that his impressions of Beau and the retreat are quite different from reality. Now he can’t figure out what’s real and what’s not.

Realizing that he is unwanted, Arman decides to slip away while it is still dark. On the road, he meets Beau, and a while later, he find Beau, bleeding to death. He brings Beau back to the retreat only to have the van and Beau in it disappear. Something sinister is clearly afoot.

Now nobody believes him. In an environment where everything is strange, he has only himself to rely on, no matter how strange that may seem to him.

Nobody believes that Beau is actually dead. And then Arman finds evidence that he himself may have killed Beau. What is a guy to do?

Arman has no friends, and cannot connect with anyone. He is described as wasted potential. As a lead character, it is hard to connect with him. A lot of the vagueness in the book seeps into our impressions, and our judgement too.

The brief switch to second person was confusing, in the 11 chapters that are subtitled with such vague names as Always; Someday; Doing your best; Exact payment; Nothing more; Hope you can; So long to answer; The destiny of other men; The yet unknown; As it should be and Everything. 

It is hard to tell whose perspective or observations are described in these chapters, nor of who they are speaking. Everything is vague.

Fittingly, Arman runs to the retreat with a copy of Espedair Street by Iain Banks in his bag. I looked up the book on GoodReads and thought that was a clever touch. Daniel, the lead character of Espedair Street, is not unlike Arman, almost as clueless about the past and the future.

I plodded through this book because it is not in my nature to leave a book halfway through. But I am not going to recommend it to anyone. I haven’t read something so strange in a long time.

(I read an ARC from First To Read.)

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