Brewster by Mark Slouka grabs your heart and won’t let go. You feel for the characters—Ray Cappicciano, Jon Mosher, Karen Dorsey—as they experience the harsh reality of coming of age.
You play out their roles and ask: Would you be the tough guy and get into fights to mask the beatings at home, like Ray? Or, like Jon, would you become a star miler to feel a different kind of pain—an easier, more acceptable pain—than what you feel when your mother denies your existence? Then there is Karen, a beautiful, smart newcomer to Brewster who falls in love with the brawler and ends up at Wellesley where she can’t forget him. How would you play her role?
Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Jon “can talk about it now”— of the small town of Brewster and its “small wooden houses with dark yards, a train station, a river”; the tragic death of his older brother Aaron that broke his mother and any meaningful connection with her younger son; the high school years between 1967 and 1970 when he fell in with “Ray and Frank and Karen Dorsey and the rest”; his track coach Mr. Falvo who saw in him the promise of the track champion he would become; Mr. Cappicciano—the ex-cop—swinging “the leg of the coffee table” and Ray “making a noise like I’ve never heard before, his lower jaw struck across his face like two halves of a photograph that aren’t lined up”; his dropping out of Columbia University and heading to California where he didn’t know what he was looking for but where his parents would eventually end up with a new family.
Slouka invests his young characters with the passion of youth—the rebellion, love, and craziness—and the adults with the ruptures—the bigotry, anti-Semitism, abuse, and neglect. A centripetal force pulls you into Ray’s tragic story, as you empathize with his fragility while, at the same time, acknowledging the human frailty that spills into his life and the lives of his friends, all of whom are entrapped in a drama not of their own making. It is then you begin to wonder how much control you have over your life when you are young, naïve, and brittle.
And, yet, three adults who provide a counterbalance to Mr.Cappicciano’s abuse and Mrs. Mosher’s rejection—Mr. Falvo, Mr. Mosher, and Mary, the cafeteria lady—offer some kind of redemption where none seems to exist in Brewster. They are adults to emulate, not to fear, adults to believe in, not to rebuff. As Jon’s stand-in mentor, Mr. Falvo advises Jon it’s up to him to find his way out of the drama that entraps him. He tells Jon, “You can’t see it now, but life goes on.” He can join it or he can leave it. But “that’s the thing—it goes on. With or without you.”
Brewster will play in your head for a long time as you recall Jon and Ray and Karen, not merely as novelistic characters but as people you have known and loved. And Brewster, as tragic as it is, will not demoralize you because there is this: passion, love, trust, defiance, loyalty, compassion, and a relatively happy ending.
You are given what you are given.