The first installment of Episcopal priest Stevens’ Ascalon, Ohio trilogy, originally published as a blog, follows several small-town college students and 20somethings as they piece together their belief systems and create a sense of belonging.
Paul Whin is an apprehensive romantic heading for Didymus College a mere five miles away. He’s charmingly caught up in the past, often channeling actors such as Gary Cooper when he needs an ego boost. He immediately falls for Eudora Moxey, a pretty classmate who’s open about her lack of sexual interest since her uncle molested her as a child. Paul’s a virgin in virtually all vices, but he soon falls prey to lust. Meanwhile, Tucker Zefferelli, a student at nearby Calgary College, has been breaking his school’s curfew to spend the night with his artist girlfriend Bee at his grandparents’ house while they’re away. He’s obsessed with The Beatles, particularly with Lennon and McCartney as spokesmen for truth and beauty, respectively. As Bee gradually grows distant, Tucker becomes enamored of Lily, the precocious little girl who lives across the street. And then there’s Renata Pasquills, a classically trained pianist embarking on her first teaching job while coming to terms with a recent breakup that has disrupted her interest in performing. A multitude of lesser characters also flood the novel, including Paul’s egotistical roommate, Aaron, with whom Paul struggles to get along. But despite the glut of characters, the book is weak in the plot department. Most chapters focus on Paul, but rotate between the major characters until the middle of the book, when the death of a college student serves to tie the stories into one. Stevens’ sex- and drug-fueled, pop-infused prose (he references musicians from Chopin to John Denver to Nick Cave) is straightforward and occasionally poetic, and expertly captures the collegiate voice of sexual longing and metaphysical musing. Unfortunately, he captures the voice so well that some characters are practically indistinguishable; readers could easily imagine them in just about any film featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Michael Cera. As the tension between Paul and his roommate escalates, the characters’ lives tailspin into a world of folly, where if monsters “can exist then anything can exist.” Everyone seeks redemption from the shackles of desire.
An uneven but entertaining drama that will appeal to Salinger’s fans in the YA crowd.