Amid family tragedy, a young man flees the peculiar home of his youth only to return years later.
Thomas Wolfe may have warned that “you can’t go home again,” but the Asters of Old Buckram, North Carolina, apparently didn’t get the message. The narrator’s father, Henry, is a strange fit for this “achromatic town high in the belly of the Appalachian Mountains.” A boozy and bookish writer, he’s returned to his hometown to continue crafting his magnum opus and raise his family in a sprawling, eerie estate built into the side of a mountain. His son, also Henry, tells his dad’s story and, mostly, his own: from his father’s permanent abandonment of the family to his own abandonment of Old Buckram for college and law school to his eventual return. The writing is pleasant and often funny, and Henry’s memories of his youth are rich and complex (the town preacher’s attempted public burning of a copy of As I Lay Dying, thwarted by Henry the elder, is particularly memorable). The characters, including young Henry’s sister, Threnody, and his eventual love interest, Story, are well-drawn, and Lewis is a master of creating a sense of place (the title refers to a mysterious plot of land in Old Buckram where “nothing of natural origin will grow except a creeping gray moss”). Ultimately, though, the story is too unfocused to hold readers’ attention. Each of Henry’s reminiscences, on its own, is interesting, but there are too many anecdotes for the narrative to pick up steam. Late-in-the-game secondary plotlines and twists only further dilute an otherwise powerful story.
Promising but unfocused, this finely wrought debut novel would’ve benefited from more ruthless editing.