Brewster

Mark Slouka's Brewster takes its name from the very real village of Brewster, New York, sixty miles north of Manhattan on the Saw Mill River Parkway, but it's an otherworldly novel all the same. That it unfolds in 1968, a year rocked by assassinations and the Vietnam War, contributes only superficially to its strangeness. It emanates from a more mythic American past than that, an Ur-childhood we find in Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr, in films like Breaking Away and Stand By Me and The Breakfast Club, in songs by Bruce Springsteen or the Hold Steady. Slouka's Brewster is a land of reservoirs and trestle bridges, bleachers and basements, broken families and an overpowering urge to take flight.

The Boss's "Born to Run" could well be the soundtrack to Brewster. Its narrator, one Jon Mosher, is the son of German-Jewish refugees. In a symbolic counterpoint to his parents' great escape, he joins his high school's track and field team and cultivates a hereditary talent for getting when the getting's good. Jon is a haunted man. Looming over his adolescence are a big brother who died of electrocution when Jon was young; Ray, a troubled classmate who badly needs to leave Brewster -- and his alcoholic, abusive ex-cop father -- in the dust; and Jon's mother. "I was glad I couldn't remember a time when she'd loved me," Jon says of the devastated woman who gave him life.

There are girls, naturally. Of one classmate, Jon says, "I'd be a liar if I said that Gina's nipples meant less to us than the Tet Offensive. We were sixteen." Jon sees his neighbor get hit by her father; his compassion earns him a free-love fling. In her father's eyes, she says, Martin Luther King "was just a nigger with a collar and an attitude, a Communist, a liar." It's a blunt but effective tableau of intergenerational conflict. The mysterious newcomer Karen takes an interest in Jon because he likes poetry, but her affections shift to Ray. Jon is too overawed by their passion for this to count as a love triangle: He worships their love.

"It should have been so easy to ridicule," Jon says, "another High School Romance, the delinquent and the debutante, darkness and light, the hair-trigger brawler bleeding in the mud and the girl who sees..."

Well, yes, Jon, it is so easy to ridicule. This is the only trouble with Brewster, that instead of owning its clichés it keeps anxiously apologizing for them. As in "The Body," the Stephen King novella from which Stand By Me was adapted, the consciousness of the Writer is everywhere in evidence. Jon muses on Hamlet and The Trial, then pulls back: "It sounds too neat, I know: Literature Teaches a Lesson. Still." Camus's Stranger is summarized in blue-collar-ese: "It was about this Algerian guy who kills some Arab for no real reason." When Ray prods Jon to read aloud a Wilfred Owen poem -- guess which one -- the reader wishes that any author, ever, could imagine another way to suggest sensitivity or intellect.

Still. Slouka's prose makes us grateful that he is a Writer, not a jean-jacketed Everyman who speaks in Springsteen lyrics. Brewster is beautiful at the sentence level. A coffee table is "covered with bottle rings like the Olympics gone crazy." Jon finds a birthday cake "spotted with dime-sized circles of wax like ringworm." Watching a neighbor in a snowstorm, he says, "The shovel would make a black stripe like a finger across a foggy window, then start to pale." Ray's passed-out father is discovered "lying on his back between the couch and the coffee table like a man in a coffin," and the reader sees a drunk and a vampire at the same time. Slouka's dialogue and his sportswriting are a marvel, too.

Slouka's way with language may be masterful, but he's a King at heart. In its latter half, Brewster is as much a multiplex-ready thriller as specimen of literary fiction. One could practically make a drinking game of the tropes borrowed from Stand By Me and other genre classics. Crusty junkyard type? Check. Kids singing the oldies? Check. A game of trestle-bridge chicken? World War II trophies? The A&P? Baby Boomer nostalgia? Parents who turn out to be capable of unspeakable, almost supernatural evil? Check.

Hell, there's even a hanged woman mistaken for a Halloween decoration and some cute animals dispatched like the rabbit in Fatal Attraction. It shouldn't work, at least not at so sophisticated a level, but it does. Brewster is a perfect summer novel, a beach read with both brains and balls. Behind all the canned imagery -- fireworks, Halloween, ice fishing, track -- lies a work of great psychological acuity and moral urgency. It's about living on borrowed time, a subject addressed over and over again -- race times, the old Time Tunnel TV show, the time running out as our heroes plot their escape from Brewster. It's a theme that emerges with a sobriety and poignancy one doesn't expect to find in so lurid a story. If Slouka's moral is unsubtly stated, at least it feels inescapably true: "You run the race you run."

 

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