The Plot: Rachel, sixteen, is on a mission. To find her older brother, Micah. Micah, 18, is a meth addict. One night, he didn’t come home. When Rachel gets an email saying Micah is in Ocean Beach, an hour away, and in trouble, she prints it out and puts in a drawer. Waits a week, studies it, wonders if it’s a joke. Finally she tells Micah’s friend Tyler, who asks her — what is she going to do?
She’s going to go to Ocean Beach. See if she can find her brother and bring him home. Tyler comes along, and together, they will search the streets for Micah. What if she waited too long? What if she can’t find him?
The Good: Out of Reach takes place over the twenty-four hours that Rachel and Tyler go in search of Micah. During that time, Rachel thinks back on what has led her, what has led Micah, to this point.
The structure of this novel matters, because it is about such an intense subject matter: Micah’s addiction to meth. By showing his use only through Rachel’s flashbacks, Out of Reach keeps the focus on the true point of the story: not Micah, not meth, not addiction, but what addiction does to family members.
Arcos shows the complexity of Rachel’s feelings: wanting Micah home, but wanting a healthy, non-addict brother. Guilt over the delay in responding to the email, guilt over not telling her parents about Micah’s escalating drug use, guilt even over being the “good” daughter to Micah’s “bad” son. It’s not just guilt; it’s also anger. Rachel “decided that when we found Micah, I would ask him, ‘why?’ but no matter what answer he gave, I knew I’d still want to punch him in the face.”
Out of Reach shows the impact of Micah’s addiction on the rest of the family, but even then, the focus is tight: a day in Rachel’s life. In a way, this makes the tragedy of what has happened to the Stevens family easier to handle, because it is told by Rachel after the fact — after the use, after hearing that “Micah claimed he used as an artistic experience, saying that he connected with the universe when he was high,” after the rehab not paid by insurance, after discovering that Micah has spent his college fund on drugs. It doesn’t lessen what has happened to this family and Rachel, but it makes it a bit easier to handle because it’s all things Rachel already knows, has already processed. What Rachel hasn’t processed, and what this book is about, is realizing that physically and emotionally and mentally, Micah is “out of reach” of his family and nothing any of them do or say can change that.
Out of Reach is about Rachel emotionally and mentally processing the loss of her brother; this internal journey is shown via the external journal Rachel takes with Tyler, driving to Ocean Beach and going street by street, block by block, looking for a trace or sign of Micah. She takes this journey with a good friend of Micah’s. This provides the tentative romance, more light flirting than anything else. It doesn’t detract from the seriousness of what is going on with Micah — rather, it is another external example of the internal road to healing and wholeness that Rachel is on. It’s OK to have have feelings for a guy, to have an ice cream cone, even if her brother is missing, even if her brother is addicted.
I can see why this is a National Book Award finalist: the tight plotting, the careful balance of showing the horror of what Micah’s addiction without having Micah’s journey and story take over his sister’s story, Rachel’s’ own journey in processing what Micah means to her and what his loss has done to her. This is Arcos’s debut novel, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it appear on the Morris shortlist.