A novel about a young man’s struggle to navigate a tumultuous childhood without a father.
Singley (Hook Up, 2014, etc.) describes this bildungsroman as a brief history of a small island off the New Jersey shore from 1948 to 1959. The story begins with a reunion at the Whitefish Tavern, a time-honored haunt for those who grew up on the seasonal vacation retreat. Once the novel introduces its colorful cast of adult characters—a legion of men who still bear the traces of their youthful selves—a man called “Buckeye” steps to the podium to read his account of his childhood (and theirs as well) on South Absecon Island. The remainder of the book relates a narrative within a narrative, as Buckeye reads his book, Downbeach—a story that’s as much about a place and a time as it is about the island’s inhabitants. Much of the tale, as Singley relates it, has the quality of journal entries, without a clear, linear plot structure; it’s more like a pastiche of youthful memories. Buckeye effectively recounts a host of adolescent adventures, including some minor (and not-so-minor) crime, boyish pugilism, and sexual experimentation. Singley reveals Buckeye’s precocious sensitivity when he encounters his first real love interest, Angel, a babysitter visiting the island for the summer; she sadly doubles as Buckeye’s first heartbreak, as well. Holding together this patchwork of remembrances is the narrator’s struggle to manage his entry into manhood without the guidance of his dad, who died during the World War II invasion of Normandy. He also thinks of how his mother dealt with his father’s absence: “Behind me…hung the captain’s photograph; without looking I could feel it. If my Dad...if he had lived, she wouldn’t be sleeping in an old chair in a worn housecoat with a warm can of beer for company.” Overall, this novel’s depiction of the wildness of adolescence is often lighthearted and funny. At the same time, it’s always haunted by the specter of war in the background—and the havoc it wreaks on those left to mourn.
A tender story of a childhood isolated by island life and tempered by world events.