A bleak but heartfelt coming-of-age novel set in the dead-end blue-collar towns of the New Jersey shore, circa 1963.
Sam Nesbitt is a bright, sensitive high school dropout mired in the muddy town of Port Beach, where the aroma from the local perfume factory mixes with the stench of nearby garbage dumps in an olfactory metaphor of sweetness overpowered by squalor. The squalor is supplied by Sam’s abusive, usually unemployed dad, his slatternly, alcoholic mom, townie lowlifes and a general lack of money and prospects; sporadic outings with his charismatic but psychotically violent friend Leo add a few jolts of mayhem to the torpor. On the sweet side are Sam’s two archetypal teenage passions: Julie, a middle-class girl summering in a nearby town, and his â€˜56 Chevy convertible. In order to raise money to buy an engine for his car–and just for the hell of it–Sam graduates from petty thievery to serious burglary, which embroils him with thugs and a strawberry farmer who holds sordid sexual trysts with his Mexican migrant workers. Floundering in this cesspool and groping for self-definition, Sam turns to the philosopher Schopenhauer, from whom he gleans the dubious insight that â€œthe world was inside my head.” First-time novelist Austin draws a sharp, affecting portrait of wrong-side-of-the-tracks hopelessness, Jersey style. He captures perfectly the tone of teenage life, the aimlessness of finding something to do and the hesitant, meandering conversations of a budding romance. Through Sam’s warring impulses, the author also probes the serious moral conundrums of youth, as he tries to break free of his self-absorption, engage with the world and solidify his character against the pressures of external circumstances.
The narrative follows the familiar contours of an adolescent bildungsroman, with some lurid highlights, but Austin keeps it fresh with his natural sense of character and setting.