Readers familiar with Richard Russo’s Mohawk, N.Y., might find some similarities in Mark Slouka’s Brewster, N.Y. Both feature struggling blue-collar economies, both are depicted in a spare, tough prose style, and both are populated with denizens aching to get away. Aching badly, in the case of “Brewster,” Slouka’s sixth book and third novel.
In the opening pages, Jon Mosher, the novel’s narrator and emotional center, observes: “How it felt [to live in Brewster] was like somebody twice as strong as you had their hand around your throat. You could choke or fight.” Slouka’s characters both choke and fight. They also love and hate and dream. And though “Brewster” is a coming-of-age novel in the classic sense, Slouka’s deft storytelling gives the book a sort of wisdom not always found in the genre.
Set against the turbulent background of the 1960s, “Brewster” mainly concerns Jon and his unlikely best friend, Ray Cappicciano, a brawler extraordinaire whose secret home life casts an eerie pall over the novel. Ray is involved with Karen Dorsey, a beguiling classmate who offers him hope in an otherwise hopeless life. Ray is also a half-brother to toddler Gene, and his love and devotion to the boy is gorgeous and touching.
Jon is the son of a hapless shoe salesman father and a loveless mother. She spends the entire novel mourning the loss of Jon’s brother, who died in an accident years ago. Her vacancy, and Jon’s suffering at the hands of it, are as heartbreaking in their way as Ray’s devotion to Gene. In order to shake the ghost of his brother, Jon joins the track team and becomes a star distance runner. Slouka’s care in describing Jon on the track is but one of the novel’s great strengths.
“Brewster” follows Jon’s and Ray’s friendship through high school and beyond. It is a novel of stark and brutal truths, none of which is as finely rendered as the truth about Ray’s fighting, which culminates in a scene of such visceral power and narrative force that this reader was left breathless.
But perhaps Slouka’s greatest accomplishment is his ability to blend his own authorial voice with the dialogue of his characters. It’s as if the conversations that pass between Jon and Ray and Karen — about music, their plans for the future, their love and devotion to each other — are the lyrics to Slouka’s melody. And what a beautiful and redemptive song it is.
Peter Geye is a novelist in Minneapolis. His most recent book is “The Lighthouse Road.”