An almost-forgotten massacre at the University of Texas propels an intergenerational tale marked by vivid moments of connection and disconnection, fear and courage.
Framing a story in the context of calamity—in this instance, mass murder—invites both sensationalism and sentimentality; there have been few memorable successes, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed among them. Add Crook’s latest to the plus side of the list. Its opening finds Shelly, a 4.0 student, outside on that fateful day in August 1966 when a former Marine named Charles Whitman opened fire from atop the university's tower, killing 17 people and wounding many more. Shattered by a bullet—and Crook’s account of that mayhem is both gruesome and perfectly pitched, emotionally speaking—Shelly is rescued by two cousins who are forevermore bound up in her life and she in theirs. One, Wyatt, is on the cusp of the rising new Austin of hippies and Willie Nelson; the other, Jack, is apparently more conventional. Wyatt is rebel enough to admit to not much liking chicken-fried steak; but then, neither does Shelly, and that’s not the only way their tastes will intersect, either. Wisely, Crook allows her characters to change in believable ways over the course of four decades, but the novel—with its moments of love, loss and conflict—is always pointing back to that terrible past. Crook (The Night Journal, 2006, etc.) gets the period details just right, not least the bittersweet song of the title, which was wafting from radios as Whitman was firing. And she delivers beautifully turned lines, as when, at the end of their long, bumpy ride, Shelly says to Wyatt in parting, “[d]on’t say anything I won’t be able to forget.”
Shelly reflects that “[s]he had never come anywhere near perfection, but had come close to a rightness with herself, through her losses.” So it is with this novel, which, though not quite perfect, is just right: confident and lyrical as it smartly engages terror and its aftermath.