Lost boys 

Where has Jack Riggs been hiding?

The Atlanta author makes a memorable literary debut this month with his first novel, When the Finch Rises (Ballantine). It's the kind of book you don't see coming, one that saunters up and decks you in the face before there's time to duck.

The novel, set in the late '60s, tells the story of 12-year-old Raybert Williams and his best friend Palmer Conroy. The boys develop an intense friendship thanks to their similarly splintered families. Raybert's mentally ill mother spars with his shiftless father, while Palmer's mother, recently widowed, displays outright revulsion for her children. When a disturbing photograph of Raybert's father reveals a darkly violent past, the two boys grow even closer and hatch a plan to escape their working-class mill town.

Given the novel's North Carolina setting and adolescent male protagonists, comparisons seem due to Jim Grimsley's Dream Boy. While that novel found an overtly homosexual relationship between its two main characters, When the Finch Rises makes the pseudo-sexual subtext less obvious. Raybert and Palmer teeter on the brink between childhood and maturity, fumbling with forced self-sufficiency and a friendship that seems too intense to be platonic. But they latch onto each other more for safety than as actual sex partners.

Like Grimsley, Riggs writes with a cool, sometimes abrupt detachment, which makes the rare moments of warmth and clarity all the more manifest. He clearly knows his setting and writes of the gritty Ellenton with an immediacy that can't be faked. A more apt comparison may be to Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, another novel that uses a flood as a metaphor for familial strife.

Riggs, who teaches at Georgia Perimeter College, first explored the relationship between Raybert and Palmer in a series of short stories, which could account for the novel's episodic quality. Despite its faults, When the Finch Rises finds a considerable new local talent on the rise.

Jack Riggs appears Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. at Chapter 11 Discounts Books, Ansley Mall, 1544 Piedmont Ave. 404-872-7986. www.chapter11books.com.

Shelf Space is a weekly column on books and Atlanta's literary scene.

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