I have been anticipating sharing Brewster since May when, at BookExpo, it was one of my strongest recommendations on the Librarian Shout ‘n Share panel. Finally, publication week is here.
It was the winter after the summer of love, and it went on for a long time.
Brewster is told by an adult, Jon Mosher, who is looking back on his high school years. The elegiac tone only lasts for the first several pages. Once he establishes the characters, the place and the time period, it’s as if he morphs back into his teen self, still looking back, but from a much closer perspective.
The novel is named for the blue-collar small town in New York where it takes place. The author’s persuasive portrait of this place and the late 1960s/early 70s time period is one of the book’s principal strengths.
Woodstock may have been just across the river, but Brewster was a different world. It wasn’t interested in getting back to the garden. It had to resurface the driveway…”
Then there’s Jon’s home life.
…when I was four my brother Aaron, who had blond hair after my mother’s father, plugged in a lamp he’d found on the street and died. It happens. I was playing in the living room when I heard my father screaming and a few seconds later, my mother. I’d passed Aaron on the stairs a few minutes before, carrying something up. “Shhh,” he said. I never saw him again.
It becomes clear that Jon blames himself for “not saying something.” His mother’s behavior feeds his guilt. She rarely speaks to him after that, and their scenes are painful to read, especially one particularly disastrous attempt to win back her notice.
Most adults in this book are negative influences, but Mr. Falvo is different. One day after 10th grade history he asks Jon to try out for the track team. Oh, the writing about running track — the agony of getting started (that first practice is not pretty), the satisfaction of improving, and the thrill of competition. The racing scenes are riveting.
Jon is smarter than most. He reads and discusses literature for fun. Camus, Wilfred Owen, Nietzsche. Actually, that’s not quite right. He reads literature to figure things out, not always successfully. “Kafka didn’t save me. He just told me I was drowning.”
Ray’s girlfriend, Karen, is also very bright. In all rights it should have been Jon and Karen.
But Ray is irresistible. Ray Cappicciano is the center of this novel. Jon is the observer, the storyteller. But the story centers on Ray. And Ray’s story transforms over time. Brewster starts out at the beginning of their friendship, and even Jon is taken in at first. Like the rest of the town, he thinks Ray is a not-very-bright, hot-headed loser who is quick with his fists. (Albeit, a loser with a certain charm.) As Jon gets to know him better, he sees Ray take care of his baby brother every day after school, and they even talk poetry every once in awhile. They share a hatred for their small town and a desire to get out, maybe even drive to California. But then the truth of Ray’s life starts coming out, and it is much darker than the occasional fight. Ray is much smarter than Jon realized; he’s been covering up the truth.
In the last 100 pages of the novel, Slouka skillfully accelerates the revelations of menace and danger. I dare you to put down this novel during those last 100 pages.
In summary, this is a masterful story about teenage boys and friendship surrounded by violence (including animal cruelty in one scene). The assassinations in our own country, the war in Vietnam. All of that lives on the fringes of this novel. I expect to see Brewster on best-of-the-year lists come December. And I think it would be a terrific choice for an Alex Award. It has the appeal. It has the quality writing. I’ve seen comparisons to Tobias Wolff, and I believe they are justified.
Adult/High School–Jon Mosher lives in a rural New York town in which racism and bigotry are alive and well, and whose young men are dying in Vietnam. His parents are German Jews who barely escaped the concentration camps. His kindly father works hard in his shoe store on Main Street, but the family still grieves the early death of Jon’s older brother. His mother unfortunately and inexplicably blames Jon for the accident. When Jon is lured onto the track team by an observant teacher, he finds escape in long, punishing runs. A serious student and a bit of a loner, he develops an unlikely friendship with Ray, who is erratic, charming, and always getting into fights. As cold and uncomfortable as Jon’s home life is, it’s nothing compared with Ray’s. Ray must cope with a violent and alcoholic ex-cop father and protect his baby brother. When Karen, an attractive and energetic new student arrives in Brewster, Ray and Jon both fall in love, but once she meets Ray, there’s no question who she will choose. They talk constantly of moving to California, away from the constant rain and snow and ice. But amid the innocent dreaming, there is something menacing emerging in Ray’s life. Together they plot a way to flee Brewster and escape Ray’s father. Slouka’s writing is glorious. Song lyrics integral to the late ‘60s/early ’70s are incorporated into the prose in a way that immerses readers in the time and place. For its combination of evocative writing, unique setting, sharp characterization, and nearly unbearable suspense, Brewster is most highly recommended.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City