I first encountered Mark Slouka’s work in his masterly 2010 collection, ESSAYS FROM THE NICK OF TIME, a book I included on my list of the best ones of that year, noting it was “distinctive for its originality, its rigorous thinking and the clarity of its expression.” But that volume, which included essays ranging from the intensely personal to the frankly political, didn’t fully prepare me for this gritty and brutally honest tale of the emotional struggles of three young people in a small New York town in the late 1960s. That Slouka succeeds so well in making such a sharp transition in style and subject matter is a tribute to his considerable talent.
The desire that unites Slouka’s narrator, Jon Mosher, and his friends Ray Cappicciano and Karen, as they make their way through high school in the eponymous town of the novel’s title is a profound yearning to leave it far behind. Jon, the son of German Jewish refugees, forms what at first seems an improbable friendship with Ray, the classic high school bad boy, “the All-American delinquent with the reckless face and the chipped tooth who might not know much about algebra but who’d win the girl in the end.” Ray has a propensity for showing up at school bearing the bruises from what he dismisses as yet another street brawl. Jon carries his own scars, the result of his older brother’s accidental electrocution in their home when Jon was only four. That tragedy provokes Jon’s mother to distance herself from her surviving son, inexplicably holding him responsible for his brother’s death. Jon turns to running as an outlet for his frustrations and transforms himself through sheer will into one of the stars of the high school track team.
"[ESSAYS FROM THE NICK OF TIME] didn’t fully prepare me for this gritty and brutally honest tale of the emotional struggles of three young people in a small New York town in the late 1960s. That Slouka succeeds so well in making such a sharp transition in style and subject matter is a tribute to his considerable talent."
In contrast, the relationship between Ray and Karen, a studious, intellectually assertive young woman, doesn’t feel developed with the same meticulous attention to detail Slouka devotes to the one betw