I've followed the essays and fiction of writer Mark Slouka ("slow-kah") yet still didn't know exactly what to expect from his newest. It is his return, difficult and rewarding, to his own story instead of traveling, as it were, further into the lives of his Eastern European immigrant parents, or to other parts of the world. Brewster the novel is named for the real place, a "village" in New York right out of a West Coast kid's (me) imaginings (from books and movies and plays) of what a "hardscrabble" and "working class" town is like, and the place in the novel does not disappoint. By which I mean that it is a place of profound everyday disappointment, tension, frustration, claustrophobic teenage angst (all completely justified) circa 1968-69, when somebody perhaps very much like Slouka himself, the son of Hungarian parents, grew up there, albeit fictionally, and tried to get the hell out. The book is in a tradition, which it consciously both engages and, happily, subverts, mostly due to Slouka's success at making what "happens" less important than what is - to invoke one of the era's songs the author himself invokes - "happening here," which is all too clear: adults purposely, accidentally hurting children as part of their ritual of war and child sacrifice.
When I interviewed him last week for that most excellent radio show, Bibliocracy - over at
KPFK 90.7 FM - it was not until the end of our half hour together that Slouka (visiting the station with his own handsome and gregarious adult son), sort of mentioned offhand that the town was, of course, "conservative." 'Nuff said, perhaps, except to say that his Brewster, NY, in that presumably singularly or colloquially "tumultuous" period of popular resistance to US imperialism, organized racism, economic exploitation by elites (hmm, sounds so, well, topical) was typical of most cities, burgs, small towns, communities which, as tribute to the monster war machine, sent away its own flesh and blood to kill other people's children. Okay, so I said more, because there is never enough. And, just to get it right: Nobody in this novel actually resists in any meaningful way the illegitimate and brutal authority, as was likely the case in real life, sadly. But that very underplayed, subtle fist of sadistic parental coercion (their own, and what they did to their kids) looms, big-time for the two main characters of the novel.
So, yes, I guess I did have some expectations once I'd figured out the place and historical moment, and read the blurbs and a couple of reviews of Slouka's novel. Yet I wasn't sure how to respond to a story which might be Young Adult ((YA, they call it in the books biz) or a close-to-memoir book told by an older, wiser, sorrowful narrator, or one of those period piece deals where the author relies on easy tropes and too-easy cultural references. Happily, the novel succeeds in doing all well, which is to say it is a YA novel for adults, a heartfelt memory-confession and a story which evokes, illustrates, contemplates and elevates the best of what kids would have gotten from pop culture, disdains what is (was) stupid and exploitative, and celebrates, sings along with those lyrics, poems, songs that affect the narrator, then and now.
The story involves a good boy from a sad immigrant family and his unlikely friendship with a romantic hero bad boy. Unlikely - or not. Friendship in high school is an unlikely and sometimes special thing, period, especially with compulsory public education and its nuttily, wonderfully, democratically optimistic ambitions. So, yes, the stoner making friends with the smarty, the athlete hanging out with the thugs. It happens. It happened. And being a teenager under the thumb of dumb adults or strict expectations? Think A Separate Peace or This Boy's Life, and put the emotional honesty (and dishonesty) and horror, claustrophobic young adult struggle for identity of both in there, and Hello, Welcome to Brewster, whose population also includes some nasty and mean teachers, a generous teacher, an abusive (to put it mildly) ex-cop parent, two very sad and guiltily haunted Old World parents, a very smart and beautiful young girl, track and field as a redemptive way out and, yes, that underlying story (lying, for sure) about how when you graduate from high school you will go to Southeast Asia to die, if only after you have killed.
Slouka is the author of a terrific novel about the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng
(God's Fool), and The Visible World, about those same old-country parents, a recent essay collection, Essays from the Nick of Time, and a short story collection called Lost Lake. At least one of his essays, "Quitting the Paint Factory: On the Virtues of Idleness," made a big splash, taking on as it did the exaggerated assumptions of busy-ness and arguing for contemplation. No surprise, perhaps, from an old-school writer who values novels and the humanities as significant elements of civic and cultural and political behavior. I note that Slouka's work is sometimes called sentimental, to which I would were I him not only admit, but respond with enthusiasm. I'll say here that if he can get a story like this one past a fairly cynical reader, not altogether a fan of "realistic fiction," as myself - somebody who prefers fabulist, absurdist, unreal fiction - then this gritty yet poetic realist has made sentiment viable and affecting. Bring it on! In fact, I will confess to trembling a bit while reading, feeling sick to my stomach, getting angrier and angrier and being right there with the protagonist when the whole thing explodes, necessarily but still vividly surprising. And, not to miss a chance to speak to the wide range of emotion, feeling good and happy and warm in the places where love, friendship and, most of all, the achievement of running track (no, I am not a sports guy, either) were offered with all the right-on sentiment you'd expect from high school seniors with a lot to run from. And, yes, the adult who is telling the story, it turns out, years later.
I looked up Brewster, found maps and photos, then found this image on Wikipedia. Seems
mineral exploitation is what's made the place notable, at least to somebody. Sure, it's shorthand, like my hometown Downey, CA is all about McDonalds, the Carpenters, "where the freeways meet," like that. So, yes, mining, tough work by immigrants, harsh conditions providing iron ore - raw material - for industry. Kind of like what Utah Phillips warned young people about when the grown ups call them our best natural resource. See what they do to natural resources.
Ray, the tough-guy pal of our smart, simmering good-boy Jon offers his own take on the grown-ups about about a third of the way into the story. Too bad he lacks the power and resources himself to find his own way out. "People only believe what they already believe." If that doesn't sounds like a cynical, fatalistic, sad, angry teenager trapped in, being buried in the heap of leftover history that is the organized exploitation of people and place, I don't know what does. Think Salinger's heroes or Kerouac's.
Which is to say that despite my second-rate sociological analysis and my shyness about realism and sentiment, this novel moved me a whole lot. It moves, too, and you just know as you are reading that it is moving toward the kind of violence required of this near Greek-tragedy of adolescent fuckuptitude. It made me angry (supposed to!), but also made me appreciate that anger I had as a teenager myself, not be ashamed of it. But, Dear Blog Reader, don't be scared off. Anger is a good thing. The story is also funny, smart, lovely in its descriptions and of course its writing. I hope to visit the East Coast sometime soon, to show my own son New York City and its environs, the state, the surrounding towns. I likely won't be visiting Brewster. I've been there now, forty years ago.
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Brewster, Mark Slouka, Norton, 283 pgs., $29.95
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.