A foray into the “war summer” of 1968 that illuminates well the complexities, sensibilities, and passions of the time, if stumbling a bit in its storytelling.
Robert Kennedy has just been assassinated when 17-year-old William writes to 16-year-old Emily, asking her on a date. He’s a good boy who reads the Beats, Alan Watts, and Paul Goodman, writes his own youthful, angst-ridden poetry, and cruises around nighttime St. Paul with his one friend, never getting into trouble. His single mom is an Evergreen Review–reading, Eugene McCarthy–loving, grape-boycotting liberal who gives him plenty of independence. Emily, Irish Catholic with a father in pharmaceuticals, would at first seem the more uptight, except she’s developed her own belief system—culled from Emily Dickinson and Barrett Browning—that permits her a whole lot more freedom than the nuns would ever allow. Within weeks of their first coffeehouse date the two teenagers are locked in powerful passion, as isolated from the rest of the world as they are absorbed by each other. With the war spiraling in Vietnam and the Chicago convention ending in riots, the world is something these lovers instinctually move away from. When they run off together, pursuing an ill-formed, romantic dream of life alone in the woods, it feels inevitable—as inevitable as the tragedy that brings the story to a close. Clark (Mr. White’s Confession, 1998, etc.) so loves this time and place that his details, the fullness of his characters, and his pitch-perfect evocation of the period become eerily hypnotic. His one misstep—and it’s a major one—is to enter the narration and tell us what to think—or, even worse, feel; it’s a sort of avuncular, Walter Cronkite–esque voice that reveals the novelist’s distrust of his creation. Fortunately, it’s infrequent enough to never really distract from the slow-motion crash before us.
Slow-motion, but a crash just the same.