Mark Slouka’s new novel is set in the late 1960s, not far from Woodstock, but you can’t feel any heat from the Summer of Love. Although the brooding teenagers in these pages listen to Jefferson Airplane and grouse about the Vietnam War, “Brewster” is about as psychedelic as a bruise. Instead, this is a masterpiece of winter sorrow, a tale of loss delivered in the carefully restrained voice of a man beyond tears.
Slouka, who lives in Brewster, N.Y., the town of the book’s title, is a contributing editor to Harper’s magazine, where he’s published essays that remind us how vital and incisive that form can still be. Fans of his short fiction and his previous two novels will find here the same quiet wisdom and muted prose that practically mock the pyrotechnics of our hottest novelists.
“Brewster” is a story about a friendship so potent that it’s taken years for the narrator to understand what happened and what it meant. “I can talk about it now,” Jon Mosher says at the opening. He’s looking back at high school in the blue-collar New York town, which made him feel “like somebody twice as strong as you had their hand around your throat.” During those angst-ridden years, Jon says, “My biggest fear was that I’d . . . suffocate inside my own skin.”
That sense of entrapment will resonate with anyone who’s survived adolescence, but Jon’s family has suffered a singular tragedy that casts a shadow on their home: When Jon was 4, his older brother electrocuted himself while playing with a lamp. His parents, who assumed they’d left such horrors behind when they escaped the Nazis, never recovered. “They just broke,” Jon says. “People break, just like anything else. They’d lost everything once, now they’d lost it again.” He grew up without much memory of his dead brother — no one ever speaks of him — but his mother still moves around in a catatonic state, shrieking into action only when Jon dares to disturb one of his brother’s carefully preserved trinkets. Theirs is not so much a home as a kind of living crypt, which Jon can’t wait to escape but is too dutiful to abandon. “Sometimes it felt like there’d been some kind of mistake,” he says, “like I was the one who’d died and nobody wanted to admit it. Mostly I didn’t know what to do.”
Slouka portrays that fetid house in all its enervating effects, but he’s just as powerful when framing the unlikely friendship that redefines Jon’s life. Ray Cappicciano is the school’s bad boy — tall, unwashed, often suspended. Some of the teachers hate him. Some fear him. He gets in fights, sometimes for money. “With his long coat and his dancing brawler’s walk and his black hair which he was always raking back with his fingers, he drew people like something dangerous, unstable,” Jon says. Behind that swagger, though, Slouka unveils the grubby truth of a poor teenager in a dead-end town: The son of an alcoholic ex-cop with a history of domestic abuse, Ray can barely stay in school while trying to defend himself and protect his baby brother.
By his demeanor, his grades, his schedule, his family, Ray seems to have nothing in common with studious Jon, but this is one of those rare high school friendships that are felt with an intensity all out of proportion to the logic of circumstances. “In Brewster there was no other side of the tracks,” Jon notes, but “if there was, Ray would have lived there.” And if, for a moment, we can put aside our reductionist insistence on sexualizing all relationships, this is a story of love. Snared in families damaged in very different ways, these two young men see something pure and admirable in each other: a determination to run a race neither of them can win.
Slouka puts flesh on that metaphor through much of the novel by describing Jon’s involvement with the track team. When the coach insists he join the team, Jon overcomes his nerdy reluctance and begins training with the other guys, even though the only thing more painful than the side stitches is the humiliation. Soon, he’s improving, learning the rhythm of the road and breaking through limits he thought far beyond him. That sounds, I know, like the starting gun of a race toward a sentimental finish, but Slouka never jogs around that well-worn plot; these pages never shift into a scene of slow-motion victory with Mom and Dad — finally — cheering in the stands. Instead, Slouka concentrates on the way running allows Jon to focus his mind on the elemental properties of physical pain and measurable time; to rise above, for a while at least, the subterranean anguish that would swallow him at home.
Slouka has developed an elliptical storytelling technique that might tempt you to imagine that, despite the elegance of these sentences, nothing much is happening in his novel — just sullen teens getting in scrapes and counting down the days. But that would be a misimpression that too many distracted parents and unsympathetic teachers make about such kids. Beneath the shrugs and oblique responses, their lives are riven by impossible choices, spiritual crises and — it eventually becomes clear — acts of unspeakable cruelty. Slouka’s real triumph here is capturing the amber of grief, the way love and time have crystallized these memories into something just as gorgeous as it is devastating.
Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.