A childhood you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy: a series of mistakes, tribulations, and brutality, tempered by the sanctuary of an uncle’s farm in the Catskills.
Related in the third person, which affords a modest buffer to the story’s grim terrain, novelist Peck (Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye, 1998, etc.) tells of his alcoholic father stealing into his room, which he shared with seven brothers and sisters, in the middle of the night, toothless and giddy on cough syrup, whining (“I owe my troubles to a savage wife”) and slurring that he wants Dale out of the squalor and the thrashings he receives from his mother, administered with a length of hose complete with the metal head. The dairy farm of Uncle Wallace and Aunt Bessie is no walk in the park, a shambles of an operation—“Dinner, sleep, morning reveille and sixty swollen udders eager to be drained, world without end, amen”—that Peck helps to drive almost insolvent. There are a few shining set pieces here: when Peck embraces a sense of place (“the land, history, time itself, absorbs all the things people forgo and forget”); and again, when a cow nears death as a result of his bungling, when he curls up next to the cow’s belly, warm as a campfire in the winter night, pining for “the body-stuffed bed of his parents’ house,” despite its unspeakable occupants. His ultimate choice of immediate family over the aunt and uncle is mind-boggling, especially after another depiction of his father, crawling around the floor of the family house, thoroughly inebriated, being humiliated by wife and police officers: “Mercy, sir,” the father pleads, and then fouls himself.
The brief, years-later section tacked on at the end is insubstantial, following, as it does, the scorched earth of what came before.