Mark Slouka’s widely-acclaimed novel BREWSTER (2013) is an engrossing read. Although I found little originality in the material, Slouka’s utilization of that material is nearly flawless. Slouka’s adeptness with detail, imagery, figurative language, characterization, and the building of suspense is exquisite and helps to bring both setting and characters to life and to establish a plot that moves along at a sprinter’s pace.
The story is set in the upstate New York town of Brewster during the tumultuous final years of the sixties. As in many small town stories featuring young adult characters, the town acts as a malevolent force that imprisons its sorry inhabitants and offers little hope of better days, especially for its children who find escape nearly impossible and remaining unbearable.
The novel tells the story of the high school years of four misfits who temporarily find something worth living for in their bonds of friendship. Readers will recognize each of the four as types they’ve encountered before. The narrator is a slightly-built, underachieving academic whose running prowess is discovered and nurtured by a world-wise coach; his best friend Ray is a Byronic street tough who possesses a surprising tenderness for his baby brother, the narrator, and the third and only female member of the group, Karen, who is the child of better-off parents and a recent move-in to Brewster. Although both the narrator and Ray fall for Karen, she only has romantic eyes for the bad boy Ray. The fourth member of the group is Frank, the devoted son of devout Catholic parents. He temporarily summons the courage to run with the more rebellious others, but ultimately, he is a conformist and adult pleaser who returns to the familiar comfort of his faith and family. As said, there is little unique or original about any of these characters; however, Slouka successfully forges emotional bonds between the characters and the reader so that the reader invests in and roots for each of them.
BREWSTER also utilizes absent, emotionally-distant, tyrannical, and even violent adults – both as teachers and as parents – with whom the main characters struggle heroically to earn validation and/or release. With these easily identifiable villains, the novel delivers a salient and powerful theme regarding the damage that such adults inflict upon the children in their charge.
Although, it is not classified as such – for reasons that escape me – BREWSTER is as fine of an example of a literary YA novel I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it to both young adult and adult readers.