In this soul-stirring coming-of-age novel, Mark Slouka envelops us with a familiar yearning, a looking back to the high school years, a period of time that keeps a piece of you. He does it so successfully the nostalgic tone lingers, like an advertising jingle, each time you put the book down. And it draws you back to the book, that beckoning siren of an intimate fictional world, the prose at times poetic and melancholy, at other times conversationally brisk and intelligently funny, as it recounts the tight bond between narrator Jon Mosher and his buddy Ray Cappicciano.
What unites the teen-aged boys is their desire to get out of small-town, go-nowhere Brewster, New York, where they feel trapped by its oppressive sameness and their broken families. It is 1968, they are sophomores, Jon a runner and Ray a street fighter. They meet over lunch in the school cafeteria, and soon it becomes evident their similarity is more about what lies behind their hatred of Brewster — their loneliness — than the town itself. The two boys spend hours together walking — in the woods, around the reservoir, along the railroad tracks and between their distant homes. “It was all we had,” Jon says. Their friendship gives them sanctuary away from their painfully unloving parents who, in Jon’s case, ignore him after the tragic death of his brother, and, in Ray’s case, leave him (his mother) and abuse him (his ex-cop father). Their friendship gives them the trust and love they get nowhere else.
The plot gently moves forward, its power not in the action but the boys Slouka keeps us focused on, as Jon excels on the school’s track team and Ray continually gets into fights, disappearing for days and then reappearing beat-up. Through the three years they spend together, they hang out, watch Ray’s baby brother, Gene, and avoid parents and teachers. When they stay at each other’s houses we get uncomfortable scenes where the parents belittle their own sons and engage the friend with weird, unreserved hospitality. The boys’ bond of friendship never wavers, even when Karen Dorsey becomes Ray’s girlfriend. Instead, they include Karen in its strength and compassion. Jon describes the romance as “intended” and “inevitable,” even though Ray and Karen are opposites: “the delinquent and the debutante, darkness and light, the hair-trigger brawler bleeding in the mud and the girl who sees the heart in him.”
Slouka’s characters jump to life with vivid personalities: Ray’s creepy, drunk father, Jon’s severely depressed mother and their other high-school friend, Frank, a Jesus-loving javelin thrower who’s a fan of Perry Como. And then, there’s Mr. Falvo, the American history teacher and Jon’s track coach, who made me laugh out loud. He’s described as “not a simple guy,” the uplift in this novel barking encouragement at the students with humor and wit, “a happy man…condemned to love this world the way a father might love his convict son. Helplessly. Knowing better.” In the background, as distant presence, the Vietnam War draft hovers and Woodstock makes history. The radio plays Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Doors.
Near the end of Brewster, Jon learns to accept his wins and losses. He realizes, “You run the race you run — there’s always going to be something,” as he begins to understand the imperfection of track events and also of the world around him. His friendship with Ray, though, is one of endurance and deep love, impervious to such flaws. And yet, beyond the confines of school, the flawed, real world forces Jon and Ray in an unwanted direction, creating a powerful and heartbreaking conclusion.