I was too young to witness the mayhem surrounding the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. But my older brother went with a buddy. They took the “L’’ train downtown, surveyed the scene in Grant Park, and got back home in time for dinner. When the cease-fire in Vietnam was announced in 1973, our family watched the news about it on TV. As for Woodstock, none of us went. It was too far away. Sure, major events were occurring when I was growing up, but they seemed to be playing out in the distant background of our considerably less consequential lives.
Something of this idea of small dramas acted out far away from grand historical events lies at the heart of “Brewster,’’ Mark Slouka’s terrific novel of teenagers growing up during the Woodstock era in the titular small town, located about an hour’s drive north of New York City.
In Slouka’s telling, Brewster in 1969 was the sort of place where people from Manhattan might have stopped but only “on the way to nicer places.” Riffing on the lyrics to Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” Slouka writes, “Woodstock may have been just across the river, but Brewster was a different world. It wasn’t interested in getting back to the garden. It had to resurface the driveway.”
And as for the riots and ’Nam stories so prevalent in tales of this era, “we didn’t see a thing,” writes Slouka. “We heard about Vietnam, we heard about Newark, Detroit, other things — but it was like listening in on a party line.”
“I’d be a liar if I said that Gina’s nipples meant less to us than the Tet Offensive,” remarks Jon Mosher, who narrates the tale as a recollection from his youth.
Slouka’s novel centers on the relationship between Jon — a contemplative cross-country runner, whose German-Jewish father runs a shoe store — and the brawling, street-smart Ray Cappicciano, whose tough-guy façade belies his intellectual curiosity, his love for his little brother, and his extremely tortured relationship with his father, a brutish and abusive ex-cop. Both Jon and Ray come from troubled homes — Jon’s little brother died in an accident at the age of 4; Ray’s mother left home — but their methods of coping are remarkably different, one brooding and the other volatile.
This sort of friendship between an introverted narrator and a voluble, impulsive rebel who isn’t quite as charismatic or lovable as the narrator seems to believe is a trope of classic American literature. Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby in “The Great Gatsby” along with Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in “On the Road” spring immediately to mind. The relationship between André Aciman’s alter-ego narrator and the fiery, passionate taxi driver Kalaj in this year’s “Harvard Square’’ provides a more recent example.
But where Slouka distinguishes himself as an author of particular sensitivity and significance is in how accurately and memorably he is able to conjure up a particular mood that has no doubt been felt in every era, not just the late ’60s and early ’70s. There is a timeless sense of yearning here. The dialogue of the author’s disaffected teenagers is accurately rendered; Slouka’s understated evocations of small-town life recall the best work of Kent Haruf; the frustration his characters feel at being stuck in Brewster before they realize that Brewster isn’t their real problem seems both true and palpable. The supporting characters in “Brewster,” for the most part, are expertly drawn, in particular the fiercely intelligent and compassionate love interest Karen, for whom Jon inevitably falls, and who inevitably falls for Ray.
Like the major historical events mentioned, the dramatic scenes of “Brewster” — the races Jon runs; the confrontations between Ray and his dad; the attempts Jon makes to thaw his problematic relationship with his depressed mother — don’t linger as much as the overall sensation the novel creates. In fact, some of the most momentous scenes register as more melodramatic and less impactful than the author probably intended. For example, the characterization of Ray’s brutal father — who keeps a collection of Nazi body parts from the time he served in World War II and offers Jon an item of Nazi memorabilia as a gift — seemed a bit over the top, particularly when juxtaposed with the elegiac tone of the novel, even if based on true-life experience, which much of this novel certainly seems to be. No, what resonates most deeply is not necessarily what happens in “Brewster,’’ but “Brewster’’ itself and the beautifully mournful feeling it creates in both its characters and its readers.
As Slouka writes, “You can compare it to something else, you can break it down into parts and hope they add up, but really it’s about how it makes you feel.”