The teen years have always been ripe fodder for writers; they provide the perfect palate upon which to build drama and develop complex and intriguing characters. No one reaches adulthood without passing through those angst-ridden years, so books that successfully capture the intensity of adolescence are endearing in that they encapsulate a universal experience. Mark Slouka’s recent novel, “Brewster,” winner of 2013’s Booklist Editors’ Choice for Best Adult Book for Young Adults, deftly stares down and dismisses the often over-used literary trope inherent in novels with teen protagonists.
Set in Brewster, New York, in the tumultuous year of 1968, Slouka’s novel is powerful and mysterious from the opening lines onward. The small town, where nothing happens and where futures die, makes for a dramatic backdrop for young Jon and his dysfunctional family, who, broken by tragedy, try to make the best of uncertain times in their dying town.
The narrator is a quiet, disheartened youth, made hard by the injustices of adolescence, the time when one discovers that there are people in the world who simply do not care and when every molehill becomes a mountain and every outrage becomes personal. To be passionate about anything is a liability, and sometimes it is easier to become the person the adult world expects — the trouble-making nobody.
Luckily, Jon Mosher also discovers that running — literally running — can help him outrun his problems. But saying that finding the runner’s high gives him a complete pass on his troubles neglects the other powerful components of Slouka’s book, the town, itself, a character in its now right, and the problem kid, the “from the wrong side of the tracks kid,” Ray Cappicciano. The town of Brewster is a cleverly overarching menace, the looming shadow that is eternally holding him back from the elusive peace and love sweeping the country and nearby Woodstock.
Reminiscent of nearly every John Hughes movie, but especially “The Breakfast Club,” the story takes a nostalgic look at the messy art of making friends during the teen years. Friendships are often made when the good kid is looking for a way to rebel and the rebellious kid is looking for a way to be good. The fascination of the awkward misfit is universal. So much effort is placed upon trying to be what one wants others to think one is, rather than who one really is. The book is cerebral, a carefully crafted questioning and analysis of the significance of the teen years and the friendships that dominate that time of life. The author is extremely aware of the typical teen pressure points and uses them to great success — first love, unrequited love, peer pressure and a dead-end upbringing — all against the overshadowing backdrop of Vietnam and a changing America.
As equally ugly and depressing as it is touching and sentimental, “Brewster” will appeal to anyone who is willing to gaze upon the years following puberty with open eyes and with an acknowledgement that strength of character comes only after trials are overcome and losses are absorbed.
As in Steinbeck, there is inevitability about the plot, a runaway train destined to crash.
Filled with evocative sensory descriptions and seasonal symbolism, the author paints a portrait of a town frozen in the perpetual winter of the past while the rest of the country is trembling with change and the “summer of love.” The book trembles with the emotions that emerged from the upheaval of the ’60s, but the real strength of the story comes from the relationships of the characters and the realities of adolescence that are a given regardless of decade. This dark, lusty book will stay with you, long after the sun has set on the sleepy, dead-end town of Brewster.