"Merit Badges" is set in a town where even the ordinary becomes intriguing.
If Time itself took vacations in other people's lives -- and why wouldn't it? -- the postcards it sent home would look and sound a lot like Kevin Fenton's debut novel, "Merit Badges."
These particular postcards come from a fictional town two hours south of the Twin Cities called Minnisapa, and from periods starting in the late '70s to the early 2000s. They arrive decorated with the detailed experiences of a group of ordinary, unforgettable Midwesterners of European descent.
Like any postcard you might stumble across, they're touched with an everyday spookiness, because postcards are really physical pieces of time. This seems simple, but try to write a postcard using Time's voice and you'll see how well crafted Fenton's book really is.
The novel gets its chapter headings from the various tasks required of Boy Scouts in order to win ever more impressive merit badges -- and, by current standards, Fenton's characters are indeed a bunch of Boy Scouts. Quint, the class rebel, is the most transgressive of the lot and he sobers up by his late 20s. More extreme, but in the opposite direction, is Slow Slocum, who, without irony, models himself on the Dad in "Leave It to Beaver," loses his fiancée for being a bit too righteously Christian, and proposes to his next one on top of a Ferris wheel. What makes this bearable, even lovable, is that he has to rehearse the event with the wheel operator. "I would have asked my mother," he says, "but I might as well just have asked Freud."
There's something genuine and self-aware about him; his fiancée calls him "stealth interesting."
Fenton's Minnisapa is stealthy, too. Minnesota isn't known for its extreme visual beauty -- no mountains or deserts -- but in Minnisapa the hills "kneel like buffaloes" even if the sky is "the color of clinical depression." Fenton has an eye for the familiar that makes the overlooked exotic. His town is neither Bedford Falls nor Lake Wobegon, but a place where the schools have "plastic pod chairs in the concourse" and stoner kids get into fights set to an Allman Brothers' soundtrack. Young lovers take summer night strolls past house windows sporting "the kind of oil paintings you buy in drugstores and the glow of TVs." It's familiar, but by no means generic, with every side street imbued with "its particular Minnisapa variation on old trees and small houses."
Again and again, there are moments in this book when Fenton gets the particulars exactly right: for instance, the way sensitive, prickly Barb Carimona perceives the relentless banter of high school boys, "as if any moment a conversation might turn into a ping-pong game." Then there's Smash Sarnia, the kind of friend who calls every few years from "a Bauxite mine in Utah or a convenience store in El Salvador" to express his totally un-affected love for you. Most of these characters move out of Minnisapa, but never completely away. Chimes Sanborn, who winds up running the bowling alley, never leaves but the time he spends in his world ends up expanding it. The hills around his town and the landmark inside it slowly start to glow for him until, in his 40s, he wonders if where he is isn't, after all, the very best place to be. "Merit Badges" is a series of accurate observations that likewise begin to glow. Fenton's book about a few people in a certain place in time isn't dazzling; instead, it is stealth beautiful.
Emily Carter is the author of "Glory Goes and Gets Some."