A boy witnesses the breakup of his family in a heart-stopping first novel.
Anna is clear: Her 20-year-old marriage to Bob is over, done, kaput. She’d caught him cheating, in their own bed no less, but the final straw was his “shit-eating grin.” This is happening in 1979 in Cargill Falls, Connecticut, where ex-Marine Bob washes windows and Anna works at a department store. The sudden rupture leaves their only child, ten-year-old Daniel, feeling miserably torn. He’s ashamed to find his father’s clothes hanging on the front-yard bushes, and so he retrieves them; but when Bob shows up outside his bedroom window at night, looking pathetic, Dan keeps a poker face. The fact is, he misses both parents: the father who is gone from the house, and the mother who has disappeared inside herself. Until then, it had been a good marriage. Bob, ten years her senior, had been Anna’s ticket out of an unhappy home in Brooklyn, but now something steely in her rejects compromise. Poor Dan can only exhale when Bob takes him for rides on the back roads: The man and the boy, Lychack calls them, to underscore the power of the adult, the helplessness of the child. Still, an enterprising child can exert considerable power, as Dan shows when he boards a bus for New York, intent on redeeming his mother’s ring and making their circle whole again. There’s a fine scrappy scene in a pawnshop, where Dan holds off three fearsome employees long enough to swallow the ring. Bob arrives, and father and son spend time by a country lake, “brief and perfect and doomed,” but long enough for the son to realize that Bob is a well-meaning man who fails to think things through, and for the father to understand Dan will grow up better without him.
It’s tempting to call this a small gem, except there’s nothing small about a work that glows with such tenderness for its three leads.