Set in the late 1960s “Summer of Love,” the unfolding drama in Brewster, New York, is a far cry from the uninhibited exuberance of Woodstock. The country stands on the cusp of social revolution, but those events have yet to reach the small-town experiences of Jon Mosher and Ray Cappicciano. This drama is played on a smaller stage as lanky loner Jon begins a tentative friendship with the high school’s prototypical bad boy, Ray Cappiciano, who bears the scars of his frequent fights with casual insouciance. Both boys are outcasts, by choice or by circumstance—Jon without self-confidence, Ray mature beyond his years, each trapped in the hopelessness of their lives: “How it felt was like somebody twice as strong as you had their hand around your throat. You could choke or fight.”
Jon has yet to forge an identity in a home where he feels invisible. His German-Jewish immigrant parents have never recovered from the accidental death of their firstborn son. In spite of his tender years at the time of the tragedy, Jon has assumed the mantle of guilt, driven on occasion to attempt rapprochement with his mother. Jon’s polar opposite, Ray is recklessly cool, abandoned by both mother and stepmother, living in a dilapidated house with his alcoholic ex-cop father and baby brother, Gene.
These characters come vividly to life in Slouka’s intuitive rendering of adolescent confusion, pain and nascent hope. These boys are forced to mature by circumstances over which they have no control: for Jon, the shame of the survivor; for Ray, the unpredictability of his father’s moods and the need to protect the innocent Gene. The friendship takes root as Jon and Ray walk for hours, leaving the barrenness of their homes behind. For each, the relationship becomes a safe harbor: “I disappeared the day my brother died. He dreamed of nothing more.” In time, Jon will come to realize how poorly he read Ray’s signals.
Redemption comes for each from unexpected places. Jon, harried by a teacher to join the track team, builds his running skills with a slow determination, developing physical endurance and, more importantly, discovering emotional catharsis. For Ray, relief is found in a relationship with Karen Dorsey, a new student who befriends Jon but falls in love with Ray at their first encounter. The three friends, along with another named Frank, attempt to make sense of a world that has veered toward insanity, war, the draft, the outrage of My Lai. Still, the canvas of their lives remains more immediate. Both Jon and Ray understand that real freedom lies elsewhere.
Though Karen’s character provides affection, female compassion and unconditional acceptance to two boys who have known little, the friendship between Jon and Ray remains the crux of the novel, each so different yet alike. While Jon’s relationship with his parents, especially his mother, is excruciating and occasionally volatile, Ray’s emotional shadowboxing with a drunken father is exhausting, little Gene a pawn that Ray dares not jeopardize. The result is tragic as events escalate toward an inevitable denouement. Throughout, Slouka balances their journey of despair and hope with infinite grace, from Jon’s grueling introduction to track to Ray’s playful moments with the baby brother he adores, brief respite from an increasingly fractious existence. It is impossible not to care for each of these boys individually, but in tandem, they are heartbreaking: “You didn’t punch me in the chest. I trapped your fist with my heart.”