Slouka's third novel, set mainly in 1968 in hardscrabble Brewster, N.Y., is a departure from his last, the dark and lyrical World War II book The Visible World (2007).
Jon Mosher is 16, the son of Jewish émigrés who were remote and taciturn even before Jon's elder brother died suddenly in childhood. Guilt-stricken and alone, Jon befriends a similarly solitary boy named Ray Cappicciano. Ray, a brawler who often comes to school (or doesn't) in a battered and bloody state from what he says are semipro boxing matches out of town, lives with his father, a violently drunken ex-cop and ex-soldier with a grisly collection of war trophies, and Ray—the analogy to and symmetry with Jon's own situation as a sibling is made much of—bears the responsibility for his baby brother, whom he is able to farm out to relatives in New Jersey for a while. Jon takes up distance events in track as an outlet; both boys fall in love with a smart and beautiful girl named Karen, who opts for the rougher-edged, tougher yet more vulnerable Ray but who remains a close friend and confidante of Jon; Jon achieves success as a runner and meanwhile tries to ignore mounting clues about the nature of his friend's struggles. Against a persuasive backdrop (and soundtrack) of late-1960s America, we see the boys try—with, tragically, only partial success—to plot escape routes. Slouka writes affectingly about small-town life. He's especially good at conveying what it's like to live in a loveless, but not malign, household like Jon's. The book moves at a rapid and accelerating pace, and with ruthless precision, toward a surprising conclusion. But it takes shortcuts, indulging in a kind of sepia hokeyness at times and at others in a darkness that is too schematic and easy, that relies on a villainy that's not quite believable.
Flawed, but unmistakably the work of an accomplished writer.