Melancholy Memories

katherine spellerI grew up just outside Brewster, N.Y., a small town full of working class stiffs on the Harlem rail line. I’d had all the Springsteen-esque small town feelings expected of someone from the working/lower-middle class suburbs; I was incubated, suffocated and I wanted out.

Last year my best friend sent me a copy of her father’s novel and I spent a full day curled up on a couch reading until my vision got blurry. There was something about the kids in Mark Slouka’s “Brewster,” something about reading something that was simultaneously mythic and painfully familiar, that pushed me forward with a sort of desperation.

In the simplest terms, the novel follows the friendship of Jon Mosher and Ray Cappicciano. They share this amazing and truly fraternal bond; when they don’t have anyone else, they have each other. The two are aware, of course, that around them the world was changing, but radicals, hippies and revolutionaries were miles away from Brewster, literally and figuratively. And life in Brewster — stagnant as it may be — has to continue.

Slouka said living in Brewster in the late 60’s early 70’s was “like somebody twice as strong as you had their hand around your throat.” It’s a sort of universal small town struggle: you could be bigger than this place, if only you can fight your way out.

For me, it’s the kids Slouka writes about that resonate. They’re the ones you knew: the ones you were sure would make it out of that chokehold life and the ones you knew wouldn’t. They matter to one another in deep and meaningful ways with an intensity you sometimes forget your old bones were capable of feeling. But, you’re grateful for the reminder. Slouka brings the polish of hindsight and reflection to Jon’s narrative without losing the jagged, biting edges of adolescence and, for me, there’s something undeniably pure about that rendering.

The novel captures a panorama view of the old neighborhood, the characters that endure in the small town pageant despite names, locations and costume changes. And then it takes a step inside the house, between the nuclear families and picket fences, you start to see (or maybe you’re just reminded) that in the old neighborhood, in your own home, the monsters exist.

Brewster becomes something bigger than property lines. You need to see Jon and Ray and the people they love make it out of there, you need to have that mythic reassurance that the universal stories don’t all end the same way.

“Brewster” does that for me. It lets me feel that acute loss, to grieve for the kids who live and die by matters beyond their control and gives me the hope that once in a while, one can wrestle himself away.

*Editor’s note: the author of the aforementioned book is the father of the reviewer’s best friend.