By Sigrid Nunez
288 pages; Riverhead
A flu pandemic kills millions and leaves survivors to a chaos of shortages, looting, and violence—and that's just the beginning of Sigrid Nunez's wise and richly humane coming-of-age novel, Salvation City
. After losing both parents to the virus, 13-year-old Cole Vining is sent to rural Indiana to live with Pastor Wyatt ("PW") and his wife, Tracy, fundamentalist Christians convinced the end of the world is just around the corner. Tracy gamely homeschools Cole: "Not that I'm the sharpest knife in the drawer.... Anyhoo, I will pray for guidance." When Cole questions church teachings, PW tells him, "You're overthinking. Which is one very good way of keeping the Lord at a distance." Cole's atheist, intellectual birth parents would have detested these adoptive ones—their only shared beliefs being a distrust of television and a hatred for smoking—but Cole manages to warm to his new family's kindness and utter sincerity. And so do we, partly because Nunez never resorts to spoofing them. The narrative toggles between past and present as Cole grapples with issues both spiritual and sexual (he's in sweet agony over Tracy's beautiful niece). Embodying the best of his old and new selves—a discerning mind and an open heart—he tries to learn what it really means to be saved.