The folks at HarperCollins will tell you that literary newcomer William Kowalski has written a novel that ranks up there with the likes of John Irving and Wally Lamb. In this case, you'd do well to listen to the hype; Eddie's Bastard is an absorbing coming-of-age story, by turns funny and tragic but always fresh. It begins with a birth, ends with a death, and has a middle filled with wisdom and wonder.
Billy Mann is the last of hope of a once-great family on the verge of dying out in the small town of Mannville, New York. Born illegitimately to an unknown woman, he is left as an infant at the front door of the ancestral Mann home, a mansion in size but populated by just one old and lonely man. It's been mere months since the death of his town-hero son, Eddie, in the Vietnam conflict when Thomas Mann, Jr., (no relation to the writer) finds the baby in a basket on his front steps. "Eddie's Bastard," reads the note written on the back of a grocery receipt, and there is no doubt in Tom Mann's mind that he is looking at his grandson.
Billy's grandfather takes the baby into town first to see his old friend and the town physician, Doctor Connor -- "Give 'im the once-over and see if he needs a tune-up," Grandpa says. "I aim to keep him." He gets a few elementary baby-care tips and a carload of essential groceries, and dubs the boy William Amos Mann IV, after the child's great-great-grandfather and the Mann family founder. He drives back out to the house and, with determination, begins the task of raising a child. A proud but fallen man (thanks to the long-ago Fiasco of the Ostriches), Tom Mann lives on the dregs of the lost family fortune and keeps to himself to avoid the ridicule of the townspeople over his great failed business scheme. So it is that Billy spends the early years of his childhood in isolation, growing up under the passing-watchful eye of a well-read and kindly old man who's always got a whiskey glass at hand.
Billy plays outrageous games with his grandfather, learns to drive (and perform ridiculous stunts on) the bladeless lawnmower, and becomes a fearless and happy little daredevil in the little family consisting of him and his grandfather. Forbidden to ever have anything to do with the mysterious Simpson family that lives just down the road, Billy also becomes something of a junior spy, sneaking about to watch the beer-gutted and spindly-legged father, his two bovine older daughters, and the perfectly beautiful youngest girl from a safe vantage in the trees around their house. When Billy's grandfather breaks a hip after a winter ice storm, it's up to seven-year-old Billy to get help before the elements can kill the old man by exposure. In a flash of inspiration, he pilots his way to the Simpson house to beg for help. It's his first inside look at that taboo family, and he quickly learns two things: he hates Mr. Simpson as much as that fat old man hates the Manns, and that he loves the littlest Simpson, pretty, quiet Annie.
Billy's life of solitude is suddenly over. After a brief stay with a boisterously good-hearted German foster family while his grandfather recovers, Billy finally begins school. He's learned enough at his grandfather's knee to start halfway through the second grade, right where he would be if he'd started school when he should have. Billy excels academically, but the best part of school is walking there and back with his beloved Annie every day. As the years pass, Billy begins piecing together the checkered family history of the Manns, although his grandfather remains stubbornly mum on essential parts of the story. He also learns that love, good intentions and heroism are not, even taken altogether, necessarily enough to save the ones he loves most from their demons, inside or out.
Eddie's Bastard is a simply gorgeous novel, smoothly and honestly told. Benevolent ghosts, hereditary dreams and shadowy pasts are workaday aspects in the life of a lovably normal child raised on the sometimes grisly, often admirable stories of his forebears. Rivaling Irving's quirk and Lamb's forthrightness, William Kowalski has crafted a novel to be either savored or devoured; it's delicious either way.