Stanley’s debut novel explores the complex emotional landscape of an abandoned boy and his tenuous relationship with the father he adores.
Near the end of World War II on the cusp of Germany’s surrender, what should be a day of celebration is filled with sadness and trepidation for 5-year-old Cosmas Sarvey. Abandoned by his mother and neglected by his alcoholic father, Cosmas is sent to live at the Toner Institute, a Catholic orphanage near Pittsburgh. While enduring the often brutal tutelage of the orphanage’s nuns, Cosmas clings to the hope of reuniting with his violinist father, Burt, who lives in a rotting houseboat in West Bridgewater, Pa., a town that “[clings] precariously to its waning life.” Abruptly, the novel jumps several years ahead and follows Cosmas, now nine, as he returns to West Bridgewater for Christmas vacation and a much-anticipated reunion with his father. His father, meanwhile, has sunk deeper into poverty and alcoholism, his only “sanctuary” the local saloon where he plays his violin in exchange for beer. Cosmas’ journey home is infused with vivid period details: clanging streetcars, “puffing and snorting” steam trains, pill-box hats and snappy fedoras. The father-and-son reunion, however, is a disappointing one, with Burt acting as emotionally remote as his son is eager for affection. Stanley avoids demonizing Burt and instead depicts him with the same complexity and compassion as he does the many troubled characters that Cosmas encounters. Too often, though, the novel is weighed down by dense backstory and interior monologue, while an intense level of detail sometimes hampers the plot’s momentum. Other pivotal details, such as allusions to sexual abuse at the orphanage, are given only a glancing mention. Despite the uneven pacing, Stanley tempers his dark story with sparkling imagery, humor and a heavy dose of nostalgia.
A richly rendered coming-of-age novel minus a happy ending.