Monday, October 27, 2014

Brewster by Mark Slouka

I can’t think of a single year more important in American history than 1968. The assassinations of MLK and Robert Kennedy, race riots, the Tet Offensive, African American athletes raising their fists from the podium at the Olympics. I wasn’t alive in 1968, but I happily sat through a college class titled American in the 1960s. I devoured the class readings.  I wrote my undergraduate history thesis about the culture of the 1960s. I’ve retraced the places in DC that were burned to the ground during the 1968 riots. I’ve been fascinated with trying to understand this distinct time period in American history for the last eleven years.

So its no surprise I found Mark Slouka’s novel Brewster fascinating.  It is set in Brewster NY in the year of 1968.  The story is a coming age story, a story of friendship, a tragedy. But it is also a vivid depiction of life in America in 1968.

Slouka is masterful at creating the setting.  Jon Mosher, the protagonist, carries around a picture of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand in Mexico City.  He explains:
            “I knew they were fucked. It didn’t matter. If anything, it made it better. They’d
done it, they said, for all the people nobody said a prayer for.”

But Jon is aware of the universe he lives in. 
“We could change the world, rearrange the world, but that’s not how it felt, ever. Not in Brewster. How it felt was like somebody twice as strong as you had their hand around your throat. You could choke or you could fight.”

Jon and Ray are two boys who hate Brewster and have good reason to want to escape their wintery small town, a world not yet opened up by the currents of the late 1960s (“Woodstock may have been just across the river, but Brewster was a different world).  Jon’s parents are Jewish immigrants who fled Germany and have been rebroken by the death of their first-born son in a household accident that Jon can barely remember. They have abandoned Jon emotionally in the wake of his older brother’s death.  Jon has no memories of a normal family life.  Growing up in a cold quiet house where his mother opens his brother’s curtains daily he feels as if he is the one who has died and nobody wanted to admit it.

Ray’s mother left when he was nine.  His father, a World War II veteran and ex-cop collected Nazi fingers and spends drunken nights breaking glasses.  He leaves Ray to care for his baby half brother. 

Jon and Ray are two individuals who would seem strange friends in a suburban high school: the successful student and the loner always in trouble for fighting.  And yet, the boys are drawn together by their deep desires to escape the families they have been born into.

Jon is frozen by his cold home life and his staid hometown where asking questions in classrooms renders one a troublemaker.  But he is opened up by two experiences: joining the track team and befriending Ray. It is these two experiences that help him to survive.  Jon explains of the track team: “We had one thing in common, at leas the runners did: we believed in time, pledged allegiance to it—one nation, utterly fair, under the second-hand god of Falvo’s watch.”  Ray comes to stay at Jon’s house, and his parents open up to Ray in ways they do not to Jon.  Jon and Ray, stay up late listening to records and talking and it is the closest to having a brother Jon ever gets.

And then Karen arrives and both boys fall in love with her.  But this isn’t the real conflict in the story.   The real problem is Ray’s abusive father who becomes increasingly more violent. Ray and Jon and Karen and their friend Frank devise a plan to escape for the summer and take a trip.  It is an escape clause devised by seventeen year olds who feel they have no other options.  Slouka writes: “Where do you go? When you’re seventeen? When there’s nowhere to go.” This question becomes further complicated by the fact that Ray’s baby brother Gene is returned to their father’s care.

Slouka’s storytelling is masterful.  All of the elements lead us to a terrifying climax, that shows exactly what happens to seventeen year olds with nowhere to go. A reader might ponder: why don’t these young people ask adults they know for help? But it’s clear that Ray and Jon have few adults they can trust and rely on.

I deeply enjoyed this story and it will stay with me for quite a while.  And I will especially treasure the way he captures the specific zeitgeist of 1968.  Jon explains: “

“People love to tell you afterward how they saw this and saw that. We didn’t see a thing. We heard about Vietnam, we heard about Newark, Detroit, other things—but it was like listening in on a party line: You’d hear voices talking over each other, a man chuckling over a joke, a sound like somebody crying—and then Rowan and Martin would yell ‘SOCK IT TO ME!’ and that woman on the show would get knocked in the head with a giant hammer.

The closer something is, the louder it sounds; hold a baseball to your nose, it’s big as the earth. It takes time for things to find their distance. We misheard pretty much everything, sang words for years no one had ever written. We confused the large an the small, what mattered, what didn’t. There’s somethin’ happenin’ here, Stephen Stills sang and we all sang along, a bunch of blind men staring off in a dozen directions, waving our canes line batons.”

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Home Leave by Brittani Sonnenberg

Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that - but you are the only you.” – Neil Gaiman

As I read Home Leave, the above Gaiman’s quote echoed through my head incessantly (until I eventually googled it to find the exact right wording).  Home Leave is a perfect example of an author telling a story only she can tell.  Sonnenberg’s own childhood growing up on three continents allowed her to convincingly write about an American family’s expatriate life. Her own experiences give her characters an authenticity that grounds the story.

I read about Sonnenberg and review of Home Leave before actually reading the book, so I was aware that the main storyline tracked Sonnenberg’s own experiences. The novel is about an American couple raising their two daughters abroad.  Tragedy strikes and the novel probes: would this tragedy have occurred if the family was living somewhere else?  Sonnenberg, grew up outside the US and suffered the death of her sister.  She initially started writing a memoir but found fiction to be a better vehicle for making sense of her own history. While Sonnenberg’s experiences ground the novel, it is her inventive narration that captured my interest.

The novel is told from various perspectives. The first narrator is the house at 1116 Arcadia Avenue, Elise Kriegstein (formerly Elise Ebert) childhood home. 1116 Arcadia Avenue is a unique narrator and her voice is quite distinct.  Even upon re-reading I marvel over the sentences:

“But I was so thrilled to see Elise that I didn’t dwell on her odd behavior, or on the fact that my insides felt like they had ten years earlier, during Vidalia’s only recorded earthquake.  Most of my friends, the older ones, can recall similar incidents of shakiness or decay and the depression that followed, knowin they were now officially over the hill.” 

It’s a clever construct to have a house reveal family secrets, and yet one that makes so much sense.  So much occurs within a family home, and so many stories lurk inside physical spaces.  A house with an aging matriarch would see and understand a family but also have its own unique lens outside of each family member.  1116 Arcadia Avenue reveals a great deal about the Ebert family, and her narration helps the reader to understand why Elise desired to leave Vidalia and her family history behind, and why she has been away for five years. She also slowly reveals additional details about the tragic events in Elise and Chris’s life.  1116 Arcadia also narrates Ada’s (Elise’s mother ) decline and mourns the loss of its complicated inhabitants. Later, Sonnenberg introduces the idea that deceased people can come back to life in the form of houses – an interesting idea that connects to other fanciful narrations in the story.

Next the reader journeys to a retirement community in Chariton, Indiana.  Chris Kriegstein’s parents are newly ensconced in this world, when they receive a phone call from a student creating a Chariton High Athletes: Where Are They Now feature for the school newspaper.  Chris was a basketball star at Chariton High School; his skills on the court catapulted him from his small town to the University of Georgia and eventually to a professional life that spanned countries and continents.  Chris Kriegstein’s parents – Joy and Frank-- have compelling voices. They sound like many aging seniors. They gave up their farm, they wish their son was closer, they don’t understand scanning, they try their best to understand the next generation’s choices. Joy believes her daughter “missed her train” when she broke off her engagement to a high school geometry teacher in 1975.  Frank has started tearing up quite a few times a day.  He takes it upon himself to respond to the high school newsletter which was factually inaccurate and writes a letter to the editor.  Ultimately Joy decides to write her own article too – about her single fifty year old daughter who “puts things where they belong.”  Overall, this chapter helps the reader to understand Chris’s unique family history while also seeing that storytelling is uniquely different based on who controls the pen.

Part two finally provides the perspective of Chris and Elise.  In Germany in 1981, Chris rides his bike to work each weekday, and Elise sleeps in while gestating their first daughter. Elise is contacted by a German family with a similar last name who is mourning their daughter and mother and is powered forward through a unique experience.  The new parents are then in India and Philadelphia.  Eight thousand miles apart from each other, each encounter a corpse and are deeply shaken. Both return home with important news – another baby and another home base.  We are introduced to the idea of the new child, before we suddenly learn of her death.

In some ways the structure of the novel is unsettling. In the beginning it was hard to figure out where the story was going.  It took a while to realize that part of the novel was being narrated by a ghost.  But I think the unsettling narration successfully helps the reader to better understand the experience of being an expatriate.  We are jostled and zoomed forward, we arrive places before we are ready to get there. We have to turn back to previous chapters to remind ourselves of specific details.  We are traversing different time periods and continents and thus we can truly understand what it means to live life in a different country.

In Part four, we see the aftermath – we get to see the experiences of the family through the eyes of the remaining daughter, and we get to feel her sense of displacement as well as her hunger for a sense of home.  We also get to see how Chris – the roving father—has been affected by his loss.  He dreads Leah’s wedding as it marks a further step away from the time when they were an intact party of four.

Sonnenberg has created unique characters with unique experiences and very specific lens on the world.  They felt deeply real to me – self-centered, flawed, broken, striving, human.  She has taken her own experiences and used them to create such an artful universe full of probing and lingering questions.  I highly recommend Home Leave and know I will read it again and likely glean even more meaning from its themes and stylistic choices.