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 between the two young men. Jon, who claims, “I saw her first, fell in love with her first,” observes Ray and Karen’s growing love from up close and generously shares his affection with both of them, though the novel isn’t weighed down by the clichés of the classic literary love triangle: “I didn’t know it then, but I loved them both. Who’s to say which one of them more?”
Slouka’s novel takes a dark turn as he painstakingly peels back the layers to reveal the ugly picture of Ray’s troubled domestic life. His father is a violent, alcoholic ex-police officer, and the scenes of tension in the Cappicciano house take on an increasingly harrowing character. Jon and Karen find themselves drawn more deeply and dangerously into Ray’s confrontations with his father as Slouka skillfully winds the tension of the novel to its final, violent breaking point, one that thrusts Jon into a moral thicket whose complexity hovers over the novel’s concluding pages. Reflecting on these events from his adult perspective, Jon frankly, if with evident regret, observes, “Sometimes it’s better not to go back --- just settle accounts as they are, call it even.”
Though the story’s chronology --- from the fall of 1967 through mid-1970 --- is firmly established, in an interview with novelist Colum McCann, Slouka says he “worked hard not to call too much attention to the decade” [of the ’60s]. For readers who lived through that period, there are sufficient totems of the time --- the growing menace of the Vietnam War to draft-age men, the “music that brings it back, brings it alive,” and the anti-authoritarian mood --- to ground the story in its time and place. Despite that specificity, Slouka does succeed in conveying a sense of timelessness in the yearning of these young people for both intense experience and security. “Things would get complicated,” Jon eventually comes to understand, “and the more you thought about them, the more complicated they got.”
Brewster, as Mark Slouka portrays it in this taut, honest story, doesn’t have much in common with the comparatively benign upstate New York world of Richard Russo’s EMPIRE FALLS or NOBODY’S FOOL. Instead, it’s a trip into the heart of darkness explored by writers like Russell Banks in his novels AFFLICTION and CONTINENTAL DRIFT and by Andre Dubus II in his short stories or by his son in the bare-knuckled memoir, TOWNIE. And though it clearly invites comparison to those justifiably praised works, in BREWSTER, Slouka has created something wholly original and more deeply impressive than an entire bookshelf of conventional coming-of-age novels.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on August 16, 2013