I want to pause a moment to try and describe the town of Ashton.
Ashton is a very small town [p15] of only 12,000 people [p1] including about 800 college students; so small, the town newspaper is described as “grass-roots”, a little office employing five people, where the secretary saves coffee grounds for her composting and parakeet droppings adorn “long-awaited human interest stor[ies]” [p15]. It’s a “nice town” [p17], cute but a little dumb. There aren’t enough police on staff for a big event, so they have to borrow more from a bigger city [p19]; the courthouse is also the police station and the jail [p27], and it’s next door to the mayor’s office and town hall in the charmingly-named Courthouse Square. Bail for a woman arrested for soliciting is a steep twenty-five dollars [p28]. The two churches are Ashton United Christian Church [p21] and Ashton Community [p30]. It’s the kind of town where everyone knows everyone’s business: “one little problem, even between a handful of people, is going to be felt and worried about by everyone else” [p32].
Oh wait, I’m sorry. That’s a different Ashton.
The Ashton of our book is a vile place, full of “rowd[ies], vandal[s], drunk[s], [and] hooker[s]” [p10]; a dark place with “bottomless shadows” [p11], with a cageful of “trucked-in prostitutes” [p17] being arrested by night, and even during the day “walk[s] with a limp, sort of tired, sore, and sluggish” [p27]. It is plagued by “inner turmoils, anxieties, and fears, as if some kind of cancer was eating away at the town and invisibly destroying it”.
“Crime was up, especially among the youth; […] never had the town been so full of rumors, scandals, and malicious gossip. In the shadow of fear and suspicion, life here was gradually losing its joy and simplicity, and no one seemed to know why or how”
In actuality, of course, it’s both somehow: Smallville and Gotham all at once. A good place for an all-American boy to grow up, in the heartland, except for the crime waves, orgies, prostitutes, and drugs. If only Peretti would stick to one characterization… I rather like the dark feel he’s got going most of the time, but the “Aw shucks” feel he keeps occasionally inserting jars me right out of it again.