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.”