Semi-autobiographical first novel by Moyer (Tumbling: Stories, 1998) depicts an army brat’s coming of age.
There’s little novelistic coherence or flow connecting the chapters (six of them previously published in literary reviews), which function as independent units chronicling discrete moments in the childhood and adolescence of Chester Patterson. Beginning with sixth grade, he tells us of episodes running through to 1965, when he turned 21. His good-humored, laid-back dad, also named Chester, is a captain with a desk job; his mom Betty, a Rita Hayworth lookalike, is a 1950s vamp with a small drinking problem; there’s also a kid sister, Janet. The Pattersons are as bland as a TV family of the period. As they move from Pennsylvania to Japan, Texas and Georgia, Chester slowly grows up, though we wait in vain for the happy jolt of an unexpected phrase or insight. He gets his first lesson in kissing from an obliging older cousin, Frenchie. Two years later, when he’s 15, she allows him to penetrate her briefly and experience calf love in all its glory. Another coming-of-age staple occurs when Chester encounters the school bully in Texas. There’s no glory here: Instead of establishing his manhood, he allows the bully to make off with his cowboy hat. Too often Chester is the bystander, watching his dad helping a woman give birth on the highway, or listening to the sad story of a beautiful young Pakistani bracing herself for an arranged marriage. His progression from conventional soldier’s son to disciple of the Beats is largely hidden from view. Just how far has Chester traveled? Though intellectually liberal, he has no problem joining a racially segregated fraternity in 1960s Illinois and entering enthusiastically into frat-house rituals. He’s just as schizophrenic in his romantic life; he artfully courts a stunning fellow student, then blows everything by behaving like an insensitive jerk. Chester still has a long way to go.
A dull protagonist, awkwardly presented.