At first glance, Joy Nicholson's debut novel, "The Tribes of Palos Verdes," seems like just another coming-of-age story. Narrated by Medina Mason, a high school misfit who moves to the exclusive Southern California community of Palos Verdes only to watch her family disintegrate, it deals with all the familiar themes of disconnected youth: drugs, sex, social problems and the sense of living at right angles to the rest of the world. "I'm almost fourteen," the book begins, "already in trouble at school, already been kissed." Yet as "The Tribes of Palos Verdes" develops, Nicholson makes Medina's concerns fresh. In seeking a place for her protagonist in the world, she has discovered a brand new territory where adolescence leads nowhere and remains its own immutable state of being.
Nicholson's evocation of character, her ability to bring Medina fully and incontrovertibly to life, makes this work. She writes with a snapshot immediacy, portraying the details of Medina's existence as the character would see them -- superficial surfaces with only the barest connection to what she feels inside. Throughout the novel, Medina is transfigured by only one thing, surfing, which she uses to escape the petty degradations she must face each day. These include the abuse of her classmates, but most of her troubles arise from her family, especially her mother and her twin brother, Jim, who, although initially the better adjusted, soon falls into disassociation and despair. As Medina reflects late in the book, "He doesn't even try to stand up now. He is accustomed to falling ... He says 'Fuck.' Then he says nothing for an hour."
Nicholson explores the fascinating bond between Medina and Jim with unsentimental tenderness, capturing the ambivalence between them as well as the love. Jim's disintegration, however, seems contrived in places, less a function of organic storytelling than a desire to move the narrative along. Nicholson's fixed voice reveals the manifestations of Jim's madness without ever illustrating the progression of his disease. But Jim's breakdown is peripheral to the true concerns of the book, in which plot is somehow secondary to mood. In the end, when Nicholson uses Jim as a metaphor for everything that's wrong with Palos Verdes, it seems like she's stretching to find a frame.
For all that, though, "The Tribes of Palos Verdes" is a fine first effort. In Medina, Nicholson has created a new kind of coming-of-age heroine, isolated yet secure, and complicated in the manner of real life. The book's flaws -- the result of Nicholson's hesitance to trust her instincts, to let her story simply take its form -- are the sort that tend to resolve themselves with experience, which makes her a writer to keep in mind.