A debut novel about the troubled relationship between a working-class father and his son.
McDermott’s work is divided into four conceptual categories: “Trouble,” “Hope,” “Desire,” and “Control,” and it maps those categories onto the story of the boyhood and coming-of-age of George Johnson Jr. in 1970s and ’80s upstate New York. Young George’s father’s dreams of big-league baseball ended when he accidentally got his girlfriend, Mary Goldberg, pregnant. As McDermott opens his story, George Sr. is a widower, his wife and daughter having died in a car accident. He’s working a spiritless local job and trying his best to raise his son, who’s also beginning to have dreams of escaping small-town life. McDermott paints an effective, touching portrait of the relationship between George Sr. and Jr., skillfully catching the realistic tension between affection and boundary-testing conflict. The two clash over George Jr.’s willfulness and youthful misbehaviors and bond over baseball and a shared outlook on life. They begin a rabbit-breeding business together, and the father beams with pride when the son is valedictorian of his class in 1977. In an economically paced series of scenes, young George goes away to college and broadens his experience of life while his father stays working at his job. The novel’s later segments lack the forward momentum of the earlier coming-of-age sections; George Jr. finds himself in a corporate job every bit as restrictive as his father’s and impulsively decides to break the family pattern (“My father’s given me a good example of how not to live,” he tells one of his bosses). Overall, McDermott does a smooth job of incorporating the politics and pop culture of his story’s setting. Although he never quite succeeds in making George Jr. anywhere near as sympathetic a character as his father, he populates the peripheries of his story with colorful secondary characters, including one, Ursula Brombecker (“long-time Village matriarch and self-proclaimed repository of Salt Point’s oral history”), who commands every scene she's in.
A readable, if somewhat programmatic, story of generational tensions in America.