Three adolescents in the Vietnam-era South weather crises, from ordinary childhood insecurities to major traumas, in this debut novel.
Even two years after moving back to the Southern town of Haleyville, 10-year-old Frankie Albert still feels like an outsider. Maybe it’s the fact that his father was killed in “Veet-nam” that makes him feel so alone, but Frankie has almost accepted his solitary state when a fight with schoolyard bullies leads him to make not one but two best friends. Aubrey Denton is a gentle giant with a deeply spiritual side, and Tony Carillo is a scrappy little Northerner whose Yankee accent gets him into trouble on the playground. Together, the misfits become a family, drawing in Shelley, Frankie’s mother; Sarah, Aubrey’s mother; and Tony’s parents, Kathleen and Mike. Even Miss Shockley, their teacher, becomes part of the family circle, as does Frankie’s Uncle Frank, a fireman who moved to Nashville to escape the backlash over his gay identity. Only Buck, Aubrey’s abusive father, remains angrily aloof, with his bitter insecurity a constant threat to his wife and children. As the boys negotiate the pains and joys of growing up, their elders must navigate their own ordeals, from domestic violence to breast cancer to lessons on how to forge a real connection with a growing child. At over 500 pages, Beerman’s narrative sometimes seems overly detailed, but his meticulous account of small-town Southern life in the Vietnam era deftly creates an intimate picture of the period when childhood imagination can still provide an escape from the harsh realities of adult disillusionment. Although the boys’ vague idea of the conflict in Vietnam as a war against “Commonists” rings true, the repetition from the adult characters of reports of protesters spitting on returning soldiers and the players’ recurring condemnation of “smelly hippies” are disappointingly simplistic. For a novel set in the South, the scarcity of even minor black characters is glaring. Also unfortunate is the treatment of Frank, the quasi-gay character, which lacks nuance. While the book’s major crisis point is both shocking and believable, the last quarter of the story brings on coincidences, transformations, and idyllic events at an almost frantic pace.
A family drama that remains affectionate and readable but overlong and limited in perspective.