A coming-of-age novel about a group of college freshman grappling with growing up during historically tempestuous times.
Sanford’s first effort bristles with ambition and follows a cast of teenagers starting their first year in 1966 at Ezra Bible College in Illinois. By turns, they struggle with their spirituality in the face of both disbelief and zealotry, the looming specter of the Vietnam War, their painful maturation into adults and the complications of their blooming sexuality. Ultimately, this is a collective bildungsroman, a parable about the grinding effort to find one’s adult self amid the emotional chaos of adolescence. Though an ensemble, the narrative centers around Jim Scott, a complicated young man from a small town in Indiana trying to come to terms with his understanding of the world. His supporting cast is picked artfully—perhaps too neatly—to represent a range of human types and the social issues they personify. Duke is the outspoken musician from the Midwest; Solomon, the alienated African-American; Jane, the disaffected urbanite; and Marsha, earnestly faithful. The question of religion’s authenticity is always in the background, sometimes appearing as a warrant for intemperance and sometimes as a tonic to moral license. At a college known for its “high standards for their students—spiritually, morally, intellectually, socially and athletically,” coming to terms with war and fledgling sexuality proves tough; the oppressive “hellfire and brimstone” sermonizing of Rev. Jennings, who transforms Jesus into a “five syllable word ‘Ja-eez-a-suz-a,’ ” certainly doesn’t help. And the confusions of war are only exacerbated by religious doctrine, used as a rhetorical bludgeon to support both military engagement and peace. Sometimes, the narrative lingers too long on childish high jinks, especially of the lascivious kind, but the author also shows impressive restraint by not mentioning marijuana until more than 150 pages in to the story. The tangled intersection of war, morality and youthfulness crescendos in a lurid crime committed against a female student and an even darker act of revenge, punctuating the darkness that seeps into the act of self-discovery, both at the individual and national levels.
An overly long, sometimes meandering tale that still achieves a vivid portrait of an important moment in time.