Where have all the fathers gone?
That’s the question in this marvelous first novel. It’s 1991 in Maple Rock, a white ethnic Catholic suburb of Detroit. Narrator Michael Smolij is 16 when his uncle disappears, and then his father, an unemployed draftsman. A shoe-store owner leaves a note: “I’m going to the moon.” A few dozen more family men leave, never to return. Michael’s cousin Nick thinks they may be hiding out in an old hunting cabin, but the cabin’s empty, and it becomes an article of faith among the no-nonsense teenagers that their fathers have gone to the moon, a change of address as real as beer or pizza. Overnight, the boys become men, taking after-school jobs, throwing back vodka shots, having sex like there’s no tomorrow. In actuality, they are consumed by grief and rage. Michael’s kid brother, Kolya, acts up in school and is put on Ritalin; “Miserable Mikey” struggles with depression. The story sees these ultimate deadbeat dads through a scrim of magic and superstition, their disappearance signaling that life is a series of trapdoors, that there’s no permanence, neither in jobs nor in dads. Michael slowly makes a life for himself, getting a job at the new mall along with his buddies and falling in love with a sexy coworker who’s a single parent, victim of another deadbeat dad. Yet for every gain, there’s a loss: his mother remarries, happily, but leaves their decaying neighborhood; Nick starts his own family but loses his daredevil fire; Kolya develops into a promising athlete but enlists after 9/11. In an eerie reprise of the moon exodus 12 years before, the sons, now fathers themselves, gather spontaneously at their old rendezvous, unsure of their own loyalties.
Bakopoulos doesn’t make a single wrong move, seamlessly integrating the magic-realism elements into the rest. A dazzling debut that’s both earthy and anguished as hope battles despair, with heartbreak always just below the surface.