From J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, classic male coming-of-age stories attract generations of readers by delivering plainspoken narratives that seem to bleed from the page, yet are neither maudlin nor precious. Such is the case with author Mark Slouka’s evocative new novel, Brewster, which, despite delving bravely into despairingly dark subject matter, is still somehow infused with hope and light, achieving a sort of literary chiaroscuro.
Jon Mosher, the novel’s hero, is a bright yet troubled 16-year-old track star whose German-Jewish immigrant parents survived the Holocaust only to have their comfortable suburban life in Brewster, New York, destroyed by the death of their young child. While the family patriarch buries his pain by working long hours at his shoe store in town and escaping into an endless stack of books at night, Jon’s depressed and delusional mother has suffered a mental breakdown, and even worse, blames Jon for his brother’s accidental death by electrocution.
For Jon’s best friend, the brooding, enigmatic Ray Cappicciano, fate has dealt him not only a sadistic, alcoholic father, but also an absent mother and stepmother, both of whom have abandoned their sons over the years, leaving the boys in a decrepit house ruled by a violent drunk.
Still, Slouka’s achingly realistic rendering of teenage romance, friendship and high school track team camaraderie is as often comic and delightful as it is brutal and devastating. While the teenage friends in Brewster rarely step across their hometown’s borders, Slouka has aptly juxtaposed the carnage of the Vietnam War with the rumbling social revolutions playing out across the nation during the Woodstock era. For example, Slouka’s portrayal of the tension-fraught relationships between hippie teenagers defying the dictums of parents belonging to the “greatest generation” is not painted with broad strokes of right and wrong, but rather, a sad gray hue of moral ambiguity.
It would not be an overstatement to suggest that Brewster could become the latest addition to the American canon of coming-of-age stories, enchanting readers with its soulful story of love, loss and the vagaries of the teenage heart.