Ten years after the fall of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, his legal counsel, Roy Cohn, is still unwillingly claiming victims—in this first novel of a family turned inside out by their loyalty to Cohn.
Invited to give off-the-record testimony against his longtime friend in Cohn’s conspiracy case, New Jersey toymaking executive Will Clemens politely declined. His loyalty won him a subpoena, and by 1964 the misdemeanor to which he confidently pled guilty has led to a one-year sentence in the federal pen at Woeburne, New York. No sooner has the door slammed shut on Will than he finds that Cohn can’t deliver on his promises of special treatment: there’ll be no segregation from the general prison population, no extra TV or visitation privileges. And when Will declines another invitation, this time to sex with a willing young thing who’s been smuggled onto his work detail, he’s beaten for his trouble. Meanwhile, the family he left outside is having problems of its own. His numbed wife Kay, unable to resist the matter-of-fact advances of their neighbor, keeps darting back into Cohn’s orbit to disconcertingly little effect. His little boy Bo, ravaged by cancer, is living in a world bounded by hospital walls. His teenaged daughter Lou-Lou, largely sidelined to the care of her mother’s ravisher and his wife, is the only family member who seems able to think about the Clemenses as a going concern. Unfortunately for both Will and the novel, the malaise of splintered relationships and missed connections is epidemic, as Hughes shows in a series of tableaux bringing Cohn and his circle to melancholy, sympathetic, but ineffectual life as their little cosmos seems to be holding its collective breath waiting for the worst.
A consistently accomplished debut that’s still hard to take because the family’s anguish seems too little distinguished from the general social funk to provide much narrative energy.