Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Book Review: "Brewster" by Mark Slouka

Just because the plot of a book seems familiar doesn't necessarily mean it won't be compelling or lack emotional power. In the case of Mark Slouka's wonderful new novel, Brewster, you may have seen similar stories, but even though you may know where the plot will go or how the characters develop, you'll still find yourself completely invested, which is a testament to the power of Slouka's writing.

It's 1968, and the world is on the verge of major change. In the small dead-end town of Brewster, New York, high school student Jon Mosher is ready for the change to come. Raised by parents distant since the death of his older brother when Jon was four years old, he's biding his time until he can leave all of this behind. And when he is convinced by one of his teachers to start running track, he is finally fueled by a motivation other than the urge to flee.

When Jon meets Ray Cappicciano, a rebellious student who also seems as if he is on the outside looking in, the two form a close-knit bond, a brotherhood. Ray, the son of an alcoholic ex-cop father with a violent streak, is a fighter, but he is also surprisingly sensitive, taking care of his young half-brother, Gene, and keeping him out of their father's line of fire. Jon and Ray dream of leaving Brewster, and when Jon, and then Ray, fall for beautiful, intelligent Karen, the trio, along with their friend, Frank, start planning their escape.

"We were like that CSNY song, which didn't make sense but kind of did: ' person...two alone...three together...four...'—and for a while we were—'each other.' If confusion had its cost—if it was confusion—we didn't know that then."

Obstacles start to stand in the way of their leaving, however. Jon's track career becomes more and more successful, and he pushes himself as hard as he can to help his team win. But he continues to struggle with his relationship with his mother, whom he believes blames him for his brother's death, and for surviving. And Ray's father starts to veer more off course with every day, threatening their plans—and their safety.

Brewster is a book about the loyalty and unshakable bonds of friendship and love, about how sometimes simply having someone believe in you is all you need. It's also a book about how our friends can become our family, and fill the gaps we have in our relationships with those to whom we're related by virtue of blood. As I mentioned at the start of the review, there's not much in this story you haven't seen before, but the sense of nostalgia, of the memories provoked by friendships that develop in high school and childhood, works to the book's definite advantage.

Mark Slouka is a fantastic storyteller. He pulls you into the plot, into the characters' lives and what transpires with them, quickly yet without a modicum of flash, and before you know it you're hooked. Between this and Ron Carlson's Return to Oakpine, which I read prior to this book, I've had the chance to read two terrific books about the strength and the pull of friendship, no matter how far you are from each other, or how many years pass.

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