Brewster a Brutally Honest Run through Small Town Muck

By Mark Slouka
W. W. Norton, 288 pp.  ISBN: 978-039329756
* * * *

I was born about the same time as the characters in Mark Slouka's Brewster, and l too grew up in a fading blue-collar town analogous to the titular burg of this novel. Like its protagonists, Jon Mosher and Ray Cappicciano, the conversations between my friends and me were peppered with references to The Beatles, Woodstock, Nixon, Kent State, and girls. Like Jon and Ray's unlikely friendship, I too ran with a pack that my friends today would find hard to imagine. It was the times, to be sure, but it was also the place. Unless you grew up in a place in which optimism was seldom the first, best option, you can't really understand why people in those places make the decisions they do. But reading Brewster is a pretty good way to gain some insight.

 Jon Mosher is a lonely, hard-working Jewish kid who spends his non-school hours working in the shoe store owned by his immigrant father—the kind of kid years later everyone would have said, "Who?" when his name was mentioned, were it not for some memorable twists of fate. At home he lives in the shadow of his dead brother, Aaron, and in the gloom of his mother, who never quite got over it. Jon's life takes a public turn when a teacher/cross country coach practically forces him to be on the team. He meets the nerdy Frank, but life-changing events comes after Ray inexplicably befriends him. On the surface, he's Jon's polar opposite—a sort of delayed Fonz type known for being disheveled, smoking, getting into trouble, and for being the best fighter in the school. In fact, as Ray tells it, all the visible cuts and bruises come from periodic trips to Danbury, where he can duke it out with the real tough guys. Jon has a detached mother; Ray's ran away when he was a child. And eventually there is also Karen—pretty, smart, and sensitive. Jon falls for her hard, but her heart belongs to Ray. Again I say––if that makes little sense to you, it's because you didn't grow up in a place like Brewster in the late 60s and early 70s–places where you gravitated toward those who "got" you, not those who were like you.

What's it like? Remember the old Sam Cooke song with the line, "It's been a long, long time coming/But I know a change gon' come." You feel it coming, you know it must, but you have no idea what it will bring. Slouka is a master spinner of tales who immerses us in the simmering rage, the lurking violence, the adult betrayals, and the death of hope by a thousand small injustices that happen in places where what we see on the surface isn't what lurks in the mud. The book is just 288 pages, but it feels longer in a good way. It's a quick read but it's so intimate in its details and so personal on every level that its sweep feels magisterial. At times it's like a train wreck you see coming, but are powerless to stop. And, yes, if you're on the wrong end of a town like Brewster, the only hope is to get out. You know that reading this book, and you sit on the edge of your seat wondering who will make it and who won't.

I realize this is an unconventional review–as befits an unconventional book. By setting his book in a real place, not a contrived composite, Slouka merges physical verisimilitude with psychological truth. If you want a literary analogy, call it a Tobias Wolf-like coming-of-age novel as a master narrator of blue-collar America such as Richard Russo might imagine it. It left me shattered in the way that only nostalgia leavened by dredged up unpleasant memory can. –Rob Weir

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