In the summer of 1970, Thomas Mann Jr. (no relation to the writer of the same name) finds an infant in a basket on his front porch, with a note that reads: Eddie's bastard. Though the book begins with an old-fashioned cliche, readers will be pleasantly surprised by the lively novel the first by author William Kowalski that follows. Eddie's Bastard is the story of the upbringing of that infant, who Mann realizes is his grandson, the son of his son, Eddie, recently killed in Vietnam. He names the child William Amos Mann, or Billy, for short. Billy's mother is unknown; Doubtless she had her reasons for leaving him, concludes Mann. More importantly, Mann has his own reason for keeping the baby Billy is the last of a small-town dynasty, the Manns of Mannsville, New York. I got stories to tell him, Tom tells Connor, the family doctor. He needs to know everything. Stories are nearly all that's left now of the Mann clan, their numbers dwindled to two, and their fortune lost in an ill-advised ostrich-farm venture. The elder Mann lives hermit-like, mostly drunk, immersed in family lore. Occasionally the characters' musings on what it means to be a Mann border on melodrama. However, as Billy grows up and ventures from the lonely house into the community, the novel explores identity in a larger sense how others see us, how we see ourselves, and how those perceptions ultimately affect reality.

When his grandfather breaks a hip, Billy lives with a foster family. There he meets Trevor a long-term ward of the state, whose tough-kid attitude isolates him from everyone. When, at 14, Billy has an affair with a 30-year-old woman on his grocery delivery route, she thanks him for treating her better than her other suitors do. Then there's Annie Simpson, a smart, pretty girl from an ill-regarded, white trash family, who points out to Billy that though some mock his family's fall from greatness, reputations are relative. Ê Kowalski often starts out with less-than-original characters and premises, but more often than not, these evolve and take interesting, even surprising twists and turns. Eddie's Bastard is an ambitious novel, and no doubt future works will reflect William Kowalski's growing maturity as a writer. ¦ Rosalind S. Fournier is managing editor of Birmingham magazine in Birmingham, Alabama.

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