“For some reason, it’s always winter” in the Brewster, NY, that Jon Mosher remembers—the stasis, the crusts of dirty ice holding 1968 and everything he and his doomed friend Ray fought for, or didn’t, in a perpetual rime. The frost thaws slowly throughout Mark Slouka’s new novel, Brewster, as Jon retraces his adolescence in that tobacco-stained, going-nowhere town. But his memories are warped by nostalgia and regret; decades later, Jon can only guess at what really mattered about those years, and castigate himself for actions he didn’t take.
As the largeness of his family’s tragedies—his parents’ escape from Nazi Germany, the childhood death of his brother, his mother’s emotional abuse of her surviving son—threatens to drown Jon, he finds two things to cling to amid the flotsam: running track and Ray Cappicciano, a long-haired brawler who wants his epitaph to read “Got the fuck outta Brewster.” The friendship at first borders on hero worship, but it’s easy to understand why quiet, worn-down Jon attaches himself to someone who has vowed to leave for something, somewhere, better. Easy to understand why Jon would fail to see that Ray is drowning even more swiftly than himself. What’s more difficult to grasp throughout much of Brewster, for the characters and the reader, is who is being pulled under by whom.
Slouka turns that ambiguity into an asset, recreating the uncertainty of a boy trapped on thin ice who can hear the surface starting to snap but can’t see where the cracks are forming. For Jon, the only compensation for such unsteadiness is track: “It carried me that fall, that winter,” he remembers. “I didn’t think about how much it meant—or how little. I had this. If I had nothing else, I had this.”
Such is daily existence for Jon, Ray, and their peers: holding onto what they can in a world where everything is bigger than they are, where nothing makes perfect sense and the things that might make sense seem wrong. When the insecurity of Jon’s life and his inability to protect Ray from an abusive father threaten to break him, he commits himself even more deeply to his sport, pushing his body to its limits. “I wanted to run,” he says. “I wanted to hurt in a way I understood.”
The long list of things Jon and his friends cannot fully understand is topped by Vietnam. And while the characters can sense its invisible pressure, Slouka keeps his characters largely detached from that reality, the inscrutable horrors of war no match for the immediacy of the teenage experience: “I’d be a liar if I said that Gina Falconetti’s nipples meant less to us than the Tet Offensive. We were sixteen.” This lack of direct attention to the war does not diminish its power but instead ironizes the relative innocence of Jon and Ray—so focused on their shitty home lives and on Karen, the transfer student they both fall for, that they don’t know what’s coming for them. Jon’s uncertain memories of these events continue to haunt him decades later, though he has since learned intimately and irrevocably the cost of war. The subtle tragedy Slouka points to is how we can remember false things so precisely that they come to replace the truth—and the heartbreak that what once mattered so much will never matter again except in our struggle to keep its meaning alive. Jon recalls the songs they listened to that year, as the war howled outside their doors, and how they never really knew the words. By the time he learned the lyrics, years later, “the right words seemed wrong.”
Slouka’s words, though, are almost always the right ones. Prose that can at first seem difficult in fact adds a perfect, lopsided truth to the novel’s events; the dog-pile of dialogue is beautifully, frustratingly honest in how tricky it can be to follow, true to the language of teenage boys who don’t know or care that someone will have to make sense of all this one day. Slouka’s similes alone, seeming non sequiturs of strange genius, make Brewster worth reading. In trying to understand the calamities that befell his parents, Jon asks, “How could they explain it to me? It was like watching somebody make dinner while blood pours from their sleeve.” Talking to Jon after the shock of a climax that annihilates what little sense he has made of the world, the track coach “looked down at his left hand like a woman looking at her manicure, thinking how her marriage has died.” The darkness of these images, the suck of gravity they exert, has the same effect on readers that grim Brewster has on its residents—and holds out as much hope of escape.
Slouka’s finely tuned craft overcomes what, in a less accomplished novel, could seem like shortcomings. The denouement feels somewhat rushed, overstuffed with momentum—but this makes sense given the “run like it matters” (even if it doesn’t) thematics of the novel. Jon’s big test on the track comes in the form a four-person relay, with Jon as anchor, charged with bringing his team home for the win. In the same way, the final act of Brewster builds on the momentum of what has come before, finishing the lap just before it can collapse from exertion. As he sprints into the stretch, it’s all Jon can do to keep running despite the pain, despite his knowledge that the race will eventually mean nothing—and all the adult narrator can do to cross the tape and drop, exhausted, to his knees. The race has to be finished, the memories reconciled, though there’s no longer anything that can be done to change the outcome.
“You run the race you run,” is what Jon comes to understand: It’s no use regretting what he did or didn’t do when it came to saving himself and Ray, whose tough exterior masked how much he needed Jon until it was far too late. Still, regret saturates each page of Brewster, along with the question of which is the greater tragedy: growing slowly apart from the people we love, or not having enough time for that to happen. Brewster is subtly wrought and wholly moving, capturing with beautiful desperation the sense of personal insecurity overshadowed by an era of unwieldy international concerns. The titular town is at once repellent and tenderly realized, and readers will find themselves, like Jon Mosher, reluctant to leave a place that threatens to suffocate us.