In late-1980s rural Ohio, bright but mostly friendless Barry Nadler begins his freshman year of high school with the goal of going unnoticed as much as possible. But his world is upended by the arrival of Gurbaksh, Gary for short, a Sikh teenager who moves to his small town and instantly befriends Barry and, in Gatsby-esque fashion, pulls him into a series of increasingly unlikely adventures.
... although Ohio is set 35 years ago, MacLean intends to speak to the present. The novel is girded with themes of racism, economic inequality and political division, suggesting that our current fractured moment is exemplified by mid-'80s Midwest suburbia, practically built on an assembly line there ... For a while, this setup feels a little low-stakes and after-school-special-ish, the novel threatening to drift into a rote if entertainingly snarky tale of cross-cultural understanding. But MacLean patiently piles on the calamities, which tend to relate to bad decisions by adults with confused senses of loyalty and accomplishment ... The downcast latter chapters of the novel are observant and piercing set pieces about suburban malaise and economic drift, punctuated with starker themes of death and abandonment. Can literary fiction set in Ohio be anything else these days? ... MacLean distinguishes himself with his voice — that is, Barry's voice, at first sarcastic and distant, then earnest and ultimately heartbroken.
... laborious ... Rife with collapsing marriages and lost friendships, the novel is intent on exposing how quotidian situations can lead to outbursts of destructive racial violence. Unfortunately, MacLean’s occasionally sharp prose does little to ameliorate disjointed pacing and wooden turns of phrase ... In the end, the novel is glaringly message-driven, without much else to show for itself.
The plot only gets more melodramatic and unbelievable from there, as a series of tragedies continues to befall pretty much everyone in the book. The novel culminates with a horrible but predictable act of violence and ends vaguely and unhappily. This is a message novel—that message being 'hating people is bad'—and MacLean veers as hard as one possibly can against subtlety, with cartoonish villains and mostly clumsy dialogue. Some passages show promise, but this novel ultimately falls flat ... Good intentions can’t save this unsubtle novel.