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by Sonny Brewer

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2006
ISBN: 0-345-47633-6
Publisher: Ballantine

Brewer’s second novel (after The Poet of Tolstoy Park, 2005) is a problematic coming-of-age story.

The setting is the same: Fairhope, Ala., on Mobile Bay. It’s November 1941, and our narrator, 16-year-old Rove McNee, is growing apart from his father, Captain Dominus McNee, a schoonerman who does commercial runs in the Delta. Everything was fine when the Captain taught Rove sailing and woodworking, but lately the old salt has turned into a mean drunk who patronizes brothels. Rove dreads his returns to their bayfront home, where he lives with his mother, Lillian, kid brother Julian and Granny Wooten, who is dying. Rove’s outsize love for his grandmother blends with his love of books, which she inspired. The novel is festooned with references to Emerson, Thoreau, Yeats, et al., but their presence deprives the characters of oxygen. The other important adult is Josef Unruh, a German neighbor, who generously gave Rove his damaged sloop and helped him repair it. But how seriously can you take someone who speaks comic-book English (“Vat is ze value of . . . zees and zat”)? The plot pivots on the Captain’s behavior at Granny Wooten’s wake. Believing, ludicrously, that Josef is a spy, and suspecting, less ludicrously, that Josef has eyes for his wife, he shoots at the German and then slashes him before being jailed, briefly. Bail? Criminal charges? Not in this jurisdiction. His father’s rampage is the last straw for Rove, who holes up on his sloop. We learn a lot about the boat and Rove’s fishing skills (he uses hand-cast nets), more congenial territory for Brewer, evidently, than the angst-ridden McNee household. He touches lightly on Rove’s emergence into manhood, as he faces down his father and exchanges demure kisses with a potential girlfriend, but then loses control of his material in a final flurry that involves a death, a vigilante ultimatum and a family scattered to the winds.

There’s not much meat in this carefully garnished offering.