In one of the opening scenes of “Home Field,” Hannah Gersen’s tender debut, Dean Renner, beloved high school football coach, comes home to an uncharacteristically quiet house. He finds his sons — 8-year-old Bry and 11-year-old Robbie — upstairs under his bed, “squeezed together, their eyes bright like little animals.’ ” They emerge dressed in their dead mother’s clothes, most of which are heaped on the bed. Dean demands they take them off.

When the conversation heats up, Robbie asks, “What kind of family are we?” To which Dean replies, “I don’t know, Robbie!”

It’s a finely drawn scene: three males, repressed and inarticulate, adrift and lacking maternal comfort. Nicole, country club manager and Willowboro sweetheart, committed suicide two months earlier.

The perspective oscillates, for the most part, between Dean and his oldest child, Stephanie. Stephanie, 19, “with her black clothes and oddball friends,” is headed off to Swarthmore, bent on escaping the town that worships athletes. She befriends Raquel, who coaxes her into binge drinking and trying Ecstasy. Amid a weekend home to check in on her brothers, she loses her virginity to Dean’s old star linebacker, Laird.

For Dean, household pressures mount as “sensitive” Robbie starts ditching school lunch and Bry begins spending more time with Joelle, his “Jesus-freak aunt.” Dean quits his football post to better nurture the boys, but his restlessness leads him to coach the girls’ track team. As he becomes embroiled in a few affairs, flashes of grief and anger tease out in (sometimes) painfully slow increments.

“He hated to think of her secret thoughts; he felt almost jealous of them, as if she’d been having an affair with death.”

One of Stephanie’s flashbacks, where she remembers her mother standing silently over a lemon in the kitchen, lends an illuminating snapshot of Nicole’s depression. Otherwise, we learn very little about Nicole, save that she was an amiable ex-cheerleader with the occasional blues. When Dean and Stephanie think about her, they feel guilt.

Indeed, the word “guilt” appears more than 20 times in the novel, but that guilt remains abstract until much later, when Gersen divulges more of Nicole’s pain, by which time we’ve endured a lot of avoidances — Stephanie avoiding her classes, her goody-goody roommate and Dean’s calls; Dean avoiding Laura, one of his romantic interests and Robbie’s school counselor, as well as his sister Joelle, and dealing with Robbie’s escalating angst.

Despite these flaws, the last quarter of “Home Field” is harrowing, showing Gersen at her best as she describes Dean’s, Stephanie’s and even Robbie’s psychic disorientation. Though uneven, this is a fine novel, ultimately an odyssey about the many ways we betray ourselves — and our families — in order to find the language of grief.

 

Josh Cook’s writing has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Iowa Review, the Millions and elsewhere. He lives in the Twin Cities.

Home Field
By: Hannah Gersen.
Publisher: William Morrow, 406 pages, $14.99.