BREWSTER by Mark Slouka
“The first time I saw him fight was in the front of the school, winter. It was before I knew him. I noticed him walking across the parking lot–the long coat, his hair tossing around in the wind — with some guy I’d never seen before following twenty feet behind and two others fanned back like wings on a jet. It was the way the three of them were walking — tight, fast, closing quickly. That and the fact that instead of speeding up he seemed to be deliberately slowing down…”
Review by Betsey Van Horn Â (FEB 5, 2014)
BrewsterÂ reads like a melancholy ballad sung by Leonard Cohen, Dylan, or Bruce Springsteen. It’s like driving down a remote, one-lane dark road surrounding a black reservoir, the starless sky doomy and vast. You are headed toward a forgotten city. Now and then a beacon in the distance blinks like a metronomic eye. Brewster is a static town in upstate New York, where it always feels like winter, “weeks-old crusts of ice covering the sidewalks and the yards, a gray, windy sky, smoke torn sideways from the brick chimneys.”
It was the end of the sixties, and studious, unpopular Jon Mosher, the narrator, connects with rogue, slanty, Ray Cappicciano, and Frank “Jesus” Krapinski. They were 16 and wanted to get out of Brewster, dreamed of a better life. Jon, whose Jewish parents fled Germany to America, and opened a shoe store in Brewster, survived in a gloomy atmosphere, because his parents never recovered from Jon’s brother’s premature and tragic death years ago, for which Jon feels responsible.
Ray’s father is a racist, truculent ex-cop who drinks all day. Ray was the more mysterious, taciturn, and enigmatic of the three friends. His mother left before he could remember her, and his stepmother left when his baby brother, Gene (barely a toddler now) was born. Ray is devoted to Gene. Frank teaches Sunday school and believes in Jesus as the savior. All carried their parents’ burdens, and all vowed to leave Brewster for greener pastures after graduation.
Jon finds a sense of purpose on the track team, and Frank begins to question his faith when his family demonstrates hypocrisy, shunning his sister when she becomes pregnant. Ray hooks up with smart, beautiful Karen Dorsey, and they become a fearsome foursome. Oftentimes, Ray would disappear for days and come back banged up and bruised, from fights he said he competed in in Danbury. As more disappearances occurred, the tale hints at more ominous consequences.
This is a coming of age story, sans sentimentality. It is a tale of loss and the long shadows cast from tragedy and adversity. The tone of the novel is both reflective and melancholy, and the sense of suffocation and imprisonment, and thwarted hopes, swirls like the icy wind of Brewster’s winters. There’s a feeling of paralysis, and yet, woven within Jon’s voice is the promise of a thaw, of a hibernating redemption within an unquiet stillness. This hope buoys the narrative from a relentless pessimism, and also mitigates the pressure cooker of looming menace. I couldn’t be sure how it would evolve, the youthful dreams suspended and the freighted sorrow of their lives more dire as the novel progresses.
“There was no going back, though thinking about it, I’m not sure there was much to go back to anyway. Truth is, there’s nothing more stupid than fighting something there isn’t–a lack of love, a lack of respect. It’s like fighting an empty room…You punch the air, you yell, you weep, but there’s nobody there–just this feeling that there’s something holding you back, that there’s a place outside that room that could answer everything, that could tell you, finally, who you are. And you’re not allowed to go there.”
Slouka’s prose is assured, meditative, and beautiful. I was a fan after I read The Visible World, which shared some themes of displacement, the legacy of war, and urgent love. This novel is a sterling tour de force, which left me both shattered and hopeful. If you like literature with depth, emotion, atmosphere, and authenticity, you will be touched by the pathos and humanity ofÂ Brewster.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 60 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||W. W. Norton & Company; Limited edition (August 5, 2013)|
|REVIEWER:||Betsey Van Horn|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Wikipedia page on Mark Slouka|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
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