By Domenica Ruta
Domenica Ruta’s first novel, “Last Day,” celebrates the end of the world, an international doomsday holiday that begins on May 27. Like the pagans of old during an eclipse, no one expects to survive the night. People burn their favorite things, settle debts and make dramatic amends, from I’m sorry graffiti to full-page apologies in The New York Times. Oddly enough, no one decides to do much worse than get drunk — no one stabs his mother-in-law, no one drives over a cliff and no one machine-guns the White House.
For 15-year-old Sarah, “Last Day” is “a dramatic holiday of self-inflicted upheaval drawn out into a public performance.” A “sworn asexual,” she has a serious crush on Kurt, a 40-something tattoo artist, and they go off to build a bonfire at the beach. Like the beginning of a joke, a trio of astronauts — an American, a Russian and a Japanese billionaire — celebrate Last Day from space. Bear, the American, believes everything is A-O.K.; vodka-swilling Svec swears he has never vomited in space; and Yuki’s attention is completely absorbed by his twin on earth, symbolized by his devotion to a two-headed mouse pup. The opening flits among the characters, but once the mentally ill but well-meaning Karen shows up, the novel ignites.
Ruta, who is also the author of a best-selling memoir, “With or Without You,” deeply sympathizes with the damaged and their worlds. Karen lives in a group home with Bear’s younger sister, who has Down syndrome, but the bond between them, like that of others in the book, is inconsequential, suggesting that our network of associations, in the end, does not matter.
Despite the heavy subject matter, comic moments leaven the book. The astronauts lasso corn puffs with dental floss and record their cholesterol readings on graphs shaped like penises in the color of their country’s flags. “Oh, the places you’ll go — now or never!” the library display reads. The mall urges customers to “Buy now — before it’s too late,” and Italians believe anyone who doesn’t change his sheets on Last Day will be impotent for a year.