In 2011, a Chicago family splinters under the impact of crises that range from marital strife to war crimes.
The fissures in the Brunson household began to form decades ago, but they have widened in the past two years since the father, Henry, moved from a suburban home to a city penthouse and frequent infidelities. That was around the time older son Charlie gave up the good first job his father had arranged and enlisted to fight in Afghanistan. Now the mother, Julie, drifts through days on Zoloft, while her younger son, Barkley, is about to emerge from years of suffering by comparison with his always-a-winner brother to get his first girlfriend and real job as a teacher. Charlie, meanwhile, returns with PTSD after too many horrific incidents in the Stan. And Henry, who has built a life and career on machismo, sees age and cancer batter his job, sex life, and self-confidence. Fassnacht creates plausible but unsurprising transformations for his quartet in a story that often threatens to lacquer insight and sympathy with cliché. So the eloquence in his description of Julie’s Zoloft fog impresses more than her revival of a youthful passion through a dance studio for women over 40. Charlie’s efforts to expiate war guilt in private candlelit rituals aren’t nearly as convincing as the pleasure he gets from being mauled in a drunken fight. Barkley’s emergence as the lovable Barkinator of his private-school students lacks the sharp edges of his battles with the insidious pettifoggery of the department head. And Henry’s alpha posturing isn’t nearly as distinctive as the moments when he recalls the effect on a 12-year-old of his father’s death.
This is a readable debut whose lapses into triteness betray the author's youth even as they belie his potential.