I figured it out! I know what’s wrong with this book. I had an epiphany on my drive home tonight. Brewster is too short. I don’t know the characters because the book is too short. I feel like it’s well written enough that I should have really invested in the characters and the town, but I just didn’t. I found myself thinking that I was just getting to know and like Jon, Ray, Karen, and Frank and to understand the depths of Ray’s father’s sadistic personality, as well as Jon’s mother’s desperation, and then it was over. Done. Ray gets sent to Vietnam, and I won’t tell you what happens there, but I don’t know that I need to, because as far as I’m concerned any fictional character who goes to Vietnam has a ninety percent chance of not coming home. I don’t have actual evidence for this statistic, it’s just my impression.
The more that I think about this book, the more that I think Slouka wasn’t trying to tell the stories of these kids whole and entire. He was trying to capture a moment in time in a particular place. I think that’s why the name of the book is Brewster, and not Three Boys and a Hippie, and why the story seems to be painted in very broad strokes. “The closer something is, the louder it sounds; hold a baseball to your nose, it’s as big as the earth. It takes time for things to find their distance. We misheard pretty much everything, sang words for years that no one had ever written. We confused the large and the small, what mattered, what didn’t. There’s somethin’ happenin’ here, Stephen Stills sand and we all sang along, a bunch of blind men staring off in a dozen directions, waving our canes like batons…. Mr. Montourri was part of it, hitching up his office pants by the belt saying, ‘Yeah, I got a dream—pay off the goddamn mortgage, you know what I’m sayin’?’ and bell-bottoms and beads and Gina Falconnetti’s nipples rubbing against the fabric of that peasant blouse she liked to wear and we liked her wearing, and I’d be a liar if I said that Gina’s nipples meant less to us than the Tet Offensive. We were sixteen (50-51).” Maybe this is why Jon didn’t realize that all the “fights” Ray got into weren’t fights at all; his father was beating him half to death on a regular basis. Because kids think about track and the two-mile relay and how much they like their best friend’s girl.
I want to share one other long passage because, well, it’s my review. “One thing I’m sure, you can’t tell about love, or the lack of it, except from the outside, from the way two people look at each other, from the things they do. It’s like the way you can tell about a house, about the people in it, whether they’re happy, from the way it looks from the street: a small pot of marigolds, a couple of chairs in the shade, tells you pretty much everything you need to know. I could tell what they had. I could tell by the way he’d wrapped her up in that big coat of his that day in the rain, like he was a magician who could make them both disappear, by the way she’d walk next to him, or look at him when he talked to other people, that look saying, ‘This man is mine and I like how he is—how he moves, how he laughs—and he knows it and it’s the two of us form here on, for everything.’ It was easy, unforced—walking down the hall, she’d touch his elbow with a finger and he’d turn like a ship; she’d sigh and he’d look up. Sometimes at lunch, or in the library, you’d catch them looking at each other, a kind of calm in their eyes like after a smile, or before it, and know they were talking. She loved him—what more is there to say? There were times I’d look at them and feel something in my chest and throat, an ache that made it harder to breathe, but I was OK with it. I can say that now. I was OK with it. I didn’t know it then, but I loved them both. Who’s to say which one of them more? It was the pot of flowers, the chairs in the shade. I knew they’d get married someday, have kids, that they’d have their shit just like everybody else but that she’d be looking at him the same way when he was eighty and I was OK with it. Some people can’t deal with love, can’t admit that the thing they wanted once, the thing they’d finally managed to convince themselves doesn’t exist, is real and true and right in front of them. So they sneer at it, make it small. I wasn’t one of them. I could see it for what it was. What I couldn’t see was how deep that kind of love could run, how reckless it could be. Maybe it had something to do with them being eighteen. At thirty you see options—or invent them. At eighteen it’s all or nothing (204-205).”
This passage makes it obvious that Jon is narrating at a distance of at least twelve years. He’s at least thirty and looking back on events of his youth. And this fact is pretty obvious throughout. There was just something wrong with this “coming of age” tale. I really think it was too short. Suspense builds well to the great tragedy which I won’t spoil, but then it just ends. Minimal resolution. And how a novel ends is of course up to the author, but I think that this story did not need to be as tightly woven. It was neat and tidy when it could have gotten a bit messier. The Polished Hoe was so messy. And for some reason I’m thinking of these two books together, even though they have very little in common. Probably I’m doing so because that book needed to be shorter and this one needed to be a little longer.
I think this book is worth reading, definitely. It’s not without faults but it’s an interesting exercise in brevity.