Tarkington debuts with a busy coming-of-age tale set in the 1970s and '80s, with Neil Young as the soundtrack.
Young’s “After the Gold Rush” is the favorite record of narrator Rocky’s adored half brother, Paul, who's 16 to Rocky’s 7 when the story begins in 1977. Paul is a bad boy by the small-town standards of Spencerville, Virginia, which means he smokes cigarettes, drinks beer, and wears his hair long. Rocky’s mother, the devout, much younger second wife of “the Old Man,” aka Richard Askew, resents her husband’s fondness for his wayward eldest, and her mistrust seems justified when Paul plucks Rocky from school and briefly abandons him in the woods for reasons that are as murky as the decision to rescue him. Tarkington does a better job with the vivid picture of the Askews’ fraught home life and the Old Man’s anxious maneuvering to get in with Spencerville’s social elite, incarnated by the entitled Culver family, which moves into the mansion up the hill from his more modest home. Patriarch Brad Culver’s accidental shooting of Paul, trespassing after dark, is only the first of the two families’ disastrous interactions over the next decade, after Paul takes off with girlfriend Leigh Bowman following Rocky’s abortive abandonment. Leigh returns just a few months later, initiating a series of melodramatic developments about as probable as Rocky’s adolescent affair with Culver’s spoiled, considerably older daughter, Patricia. Paul vanishes for years, but his intense, angry bond with the Old Man finally brings him home after Richard suffers a stroke brought on by misplaced trust in Brad Culver’s financial wheelings and dealings. Tarkington carefully lays out his elaborate storyline and sensitively depicts his troubled characters, but it all seems rather pat, right down to the After-the-Main-Events summary that closes the novel by neatly wrapping up everyone’s destinies.
Well-written and observed, though the characters and situations are familiar from many, many previous novels.