This is a rite-of-passage novel about Henry Wilder, a younger son in Pittsburgh during the Kennedy years. The author has arranged a classic psychological grouping of accomplished parents and bright children who are afraid to compete with them yet driven to excel. Mrs. Wilder is a dilettante artist, her husband a noted scholar. Susan, the oldest child, is a reclusive student and musician, dedicated to mediocrity through hard work. Bennett, the oldest son, is a compulsive overachiever. Baby Teddy is a fat TV freak. Middle son Henry, the novel's voice, is just coming into a dim but poignant realization of the specific and symbolic roles taken within a family, and groping for his identity. The author neatly uses the image of dinner seating to make his point:
"I have often wondered if we became the people we did because of the way we sat at the table . . . If you drew a diagonal line from the proper corners, . . . you had three males, Teddy, Bennett, and my father, facing two females, with me wedged in between them."
Sam Golden is Henry's catalyst, the confident kid who achieves through no apparent effort. Mercilessly, Sam makes Henry aware of how often he is taking second place to Bennett and goads him to excel at Bennett's sport -- track -- and later on the school newspaper. Sam has his own problems, far worse than Henry's -- a coarse, foul-mouthed, self-made father and a remote, sadistic mother.
Seasons pass, the boys grow, sex comes into play. After a single and rather innocent homosexual experience, Henry and Sam gravitate toward Cindy, who is "best friends" with both of them until the painful night the unhappy Sam forces her to choose. Cindy sends Henry home alone in the rain. But Sam is sliding downhill, already a nasty drunk and a woman-hater, while Henry is training for a race and the inevitable confrontation with Bennett, who explains his own need to achieve:
"You've got a mother who can sing. Act. Paint. Sculpt. You've got a father who's a noted scholar . . . You don't have to be told what to do . . . You've got to be good . . . You've got to be great."
The race Henry runs -- with the half-drunken Sam screaming violent encouragement -- is for his own prize of understanding. People sour and lose, even winners like Sam. Friendships run their course and end, brothers can be passed if it matters any longer. They are all catalysts, stages, and if Sam went awry, he was there for a spark when Henry needed one.
Good fiction writing is, simply put, the ability to keep the reader wanting to turn pages. David Guy does this. He doesn't inundate you with minute family details as a writer of a novel of this sort might but chooses the right ones in every case. His canvas is not densely packed, but his choices and dialogue are so right they seem always familiar to us. There is a minor annoyance in his tendency to overwork certain phrases, which could have been corrected with a little blue-penciling. And I could have used a little more light on the shadowy character of Sam's mother, whose cool sadism works its destruction entirely offstage and so affects us largely at second hand and with reduced power. I wanted to know the why of Mrs. Golden beyond a guessed-at disappointment with her life and marriage. A touch of the title character in "Seaton's Aunt" might have been effective here and certainly within Guy's dramatic scope.
The last few pages, Henry's epilogue, seem a little pat and not quite the sum of what they were meant to wrap up. Still, Henry's voice never falters -- personal, poignant, sharing with the reader a genuine perception and a sharp but pain-gentled sense of humor. I've been where Henry was. I'm sending this book to my own brother.