The central question Kevin Colden wants the reader to ask throughout his chilling FISHTOWN is "Why?" What would motivate a group of youths to murder another teen? What underlies their stated motive? How much of the responsibility for their behavior lies with them, and how much of it lies with their parents and other authority figures? Is there a discernible difference between evil and psychopathology?
FISHTOWN is Colden's own interpretation of a real-life case that took place in Philadelphia. Three teenaged males killed another 16-year-old named Jesse, while a similarly-aged girl looked on. The ostensible reason for killing him was taking his money to buy drugs. The book opens with one of the teens in custody, answering questions from an unseen authority figure. Time is one of Colden's essential formal tools here, as we go back and forth to events related to the murder and then back to the interview room. The other repeating motif is deceit: what is said does not match up with what is done or felt.
The visuals that Colden employs imply a sickness endemic to all concerned, not just the murderers. The only colors he uses are a sickly yellow and a rosy pink (for blood). The jaundiced appearance of the entire city implies that it was over before it even began for these characters--they were doomed and helped to further perpetuate their own doom. Colden employs a lot of tight close-ups that are claustrophobic and even a little nauseating at times, especially in the viscerally disturbing scene late in the book where we finally see the murder. He doesn't flinch in showing the blunt, matter-of-fact viciousness of the murder: the ultimate expression of sickness. Colden's line is scratchy and scribbly with a certain mainstream sensibility in terms of gesture and composition. It's an interesting contrast, reminding me a bit of Dave Gibbons in some places.
Each of the murderers winds up having a different motive, even if none of them cop to it. One of them was a childhood friend of the victim, but the sight of his lover (named Angelica) baring her chest to the victim, enticing him to have sex, drove him to a jealous rage. Angelica was a heroin addict and a cutter, the profile of someone who despises themselves and tries to find ways to both numb pain and find ways to express their inner pain. Angelica was an example of someone both too far gone to respond to therapy and someone who is enormously dangerous as a result. She was the lit match for the powderkeg of psychopathy that was the brothers Keith and Adrian.
Murdering Jesse was a twisted way of claiming power over their world. Each one of the murderers felt trapped and desperate. They all numbed themselves with narcotics and feigned apathy, but their actions speak to the desire to hurt a world that confused them. That feeling of shared power was made manifest in the way that the foursome hugged after murdering Jesse, completing an empowering ritual. It was a sicker reaction to a sick world, and one that they quickly realized would have repercussions. In their questioning sessions, they even allude to how sick the actions (especially of the others) were, even if they deny responsibility or regret.
Colden strongly implies that while the murderers had any number of reasons (abuse, mental illness) to lash out at the world, their actions were still their own responsibility. Jesse himself was a testament to this; it's implied that he used to be much more of a fuck-up until he quit school, got a job and planned to join the military when he turned 18. It's also implied that though Angelica and Justin (the fourth murderer) were in psychological pain, their home environments weren't especially oppressive. Indeed, both had potential support systems available to them if they had chosen to take advantage of them.
Ultimately, the camaraderie the murderers felt together was as false and fleeting feeling of bliss as a narcotic. In questioning, each of the kids found ways to turn on each other subtly and directly, and it's revealed that Angelica was quite happy to sell the others out for a less drastic sentence, even as she was manipulating Justin to the very end. There were no lessons learned here; none of the murderers will change or could even imagine wanting to change. A combination of environment and their own choices created the road they followed; they were ripe for sickness and did nothing to prevent it.