Mark Slouka is a marvelous essayist, short story writer, and novelist and a frequent Harper's
magazine contributor; he's written about everything from Chang and Eng to cyberspace and the nature of reality to why exactly George Bush needed all that brush clearing. His latest novel, Brewster
, takes him closer to home; it's a dark and spare coming-of-age story, a portrait of a small New York town in the late '60s, and a moving depiction of an intense and loving friendship. The book follows Jon Mosher, a 16-year-old with a difficult family life who befriends an outsider named Ray, a rebellious fighter with an abusive ex-cop father. When Ray falls in love with a new girl in town, Karen, the dreams — and the fates — of all three friends hinge on getting out of Brewster.
Jennifer Egan raves, "The dark undertow of Slouka's prose makes Brewster instantly mesmerizing, a novel that whirls the reader into small-town, late 1960s America with mastery, originality, and heart." And Colum McCann writes, "Reading Brewster is like entering the very heart of a Bruce Springsteen song — all grace, all depth, all sinew. Slouka — one of the great unsung writers of our time — has written a magnificent novel that woke my tired heart." We are proud to have chosen Brewster as Volume 41 of Indiespensable.
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Jill Owens: You live in Brewster now.
Mark Slouka: Yes, I do. I'm looking out at it as we speak. Little Quito, I affectionately call it, because it's gone through these waves over the years, and the latest incarnation is Ecuadorian. I think I read somewhere that we have the largest Ecuadorian population outside of Ecuador, per capita. It's extraordinary. It's really quite wonderful. My son just came back from Ecuador. He said, "I sit on your porch and I feel like I haven't left."
Jill: Why Ecuador specifically? Do you know?
Slouka: I think it's word of mouth. A lot of these guys are agricultural workers. I guess the word goes out. Families come up. Friends talk to friends.
I suppose the whole Italian American thing that happened here and the Irish American thing and all the rest of these groups went along the same tracks. This is just our latest phase. The Italian American presence is still dominant, but it's being challenged and that's kind of cool.
Jill: Did you grow up in Brewster?
Slouka: I grew up around it. I was born in Queens. It's a simple question and a complicated answer. I was born in Queens, but my parents were Czech refugees. I actually couldn't speak English until I was five or six, or thereabouts. I went out on the playground, and it was like, Whoa. What's the matter with these kids? They don't speak Czech.
We had a little cabin out here, on a place called Lost Lake — actually, we have one there again, after many years — so we were always hovering around Brewster. Brewster was about five miles away, and it was where we'd see my dad off on a train going to the city, which is what dads did back then. Then we'd pick him up late in the afternoon, and the cocktail would be waiting. It was the whole early '60s Mad Men kind of thing.
Jill: I have to admit I was picturing that as you described it.
Slouka: He wore that hat, and he was about seven feet tall, because I was about a foot and a half. Yeah, so Brewster has always been... We were stuck out in Winslow, Arizona, last fall; my wife and I, our family has been sort of gypsies all our lives, and we kind of ran out of rope. It was like, "Well, where the hell do we go now?" I said, "Brewster's a place we keep coming around to." It's the first house we've ever owned. We bought a house, just snuck in under the rising interest rates, so this is the first anchor I've ever had — Brewster is it.
Jill: Was the experience of writing about a place while you're living in it different than the experiences with some of your other fiction?
Slouka: It was, because this book was really a kind of liberation or homecoming. It's my first American book, or almost wholly American. I think of it as American. It was the first book where I gave myself permission to be here. I'd always been dealing with the ghosts of Europe and my family's stories, my parents' lives. It was time to come home.
And you can't stick your nose out in Brewster without hearing that sort of gorgeous New York–area idiom. That whole Irish/Italian American thing. It's rich and it's poetic and it's profane and it's home.
So, in a way, it was really easy being in Brewster and writing about it because it was all around me. The funny thing now is I can't go around Brewster without seeing my own characters and places where they went. That's interesting and strange because it's how fiction takes over reality. To me, that's fascinating. I keep thinking I see Ray and Karen heading off into the woods, and by the reservoirs. Or, Oh, that's the place where they stood on Garden Street looking over the graveyard. It's interesting.
Jill: When you were growing up, did you want to get out of Brewster in the same way that Jon and Ray do?
Slouka: I think I was born wanting to get out. You know what I mean? I'm hardwired for wanting to get out of wherever I am. So the short answer is yes. I had a difficult family situation. Jon's mother is very much patterned after my own mom.
I have an interesting story for you, actually. This is how dumb we are about our own fiction. I wrote the novel, and a couple months later I was talking to somebody who had read it. They said that the relationship they found most interesting was not necessarily the one between Jon and Ray or Ray and Karen but between Jon and his mother.
An hour later I was in the shower and I had this epiphany. I suddenly understood what I had done. In a sense, I had split myself in two in writing Jon's character and his fate.
What happened to me is that I had a wonderful relationship with my mother when I was a child. But at some point she had sort of slipped headlong into depression, and her past caught up with her. She spent my entire boyhood and young adulthood mourning the child she had lost. I was always standing in front of her saying, "I'm right here. I'm the same person. I haven't changed. I'm right in front of you."
And in the novel I literalized it. I took that idealized younger self and I killed him off. And the other son, me, has to kind of live on in the shadow of that loss. It was one of those oh, of course moments. I had no idea. It would have been too pat, too neat. It would have been disastrous if I'd known in advance what I was doing. But I had no idea.
Jill: One of my favorite scenes is when Ray meets Jon's parents for the first time. It's heartbreaking in the way she treats Ray and how much Jon realizes, and the reader realizes, just how starved Jon is for kindness and understanding. It reveals so much about all of those characters in such a small scene.
Slouka: Oh, thank you. Yes, I think it's a scene where Jon realizes exactly how lonely he's been and how alone he's been. And those are not necessarily the same thing. I mean, it's interesting because each boy, Jon and Ray, fulfills something or answers something in the other's parent or parents. There's kind of a symmetry there which, again, I wasn't aware of until afterwards.
Jon, in a kind of miserable, complicated way, speaks to Ray Sr.; he communicates with him in a way that, obviously, Ray doesn't. And Jon's parents were able to respond to Ray in a way they, especially Jon's mother, can't to their own son.
There's something about Ray seeing it — a sort of understanding comes. Suddenly, he's like, I see what's going on here. Because Ray knows what abuse looks like. It doesn't have to come through a fist. It comes in all sorts of ways.
Jill: How did you decide to have Jon narrate the book looking back at this time in the semi-distant past rather than in the present, as it was happening? His hindsight affects the tone dramatically.
Slouka: I think stories are retrospective almost by definition. I've always kind of believed that instinctively. You know, "That was the summer when..." and the story begins.
As a writer, I tend to slip naturally into that kind of... not nostalgic, certainly not in this novel so much, but that retrospective mode. You are looking back on a time. And, because it's the past, maybe, maybe you have some insight into it.
When something is actually occurring, that's the worst possible time to try to understand what's happening. You are in the moment. You have no clue. Knowledge is retrospective. So it just seemed like a natural fit.
Every now and then somebody can pull off the present tense. But I'm always sort of nervous when I read it, because what a high-wire act that is. It's great for energy, for action. But to maintain it over the course of a novel is enormously difficult.
Jill: In Brewster, as a reader, it does feel very much like you're being told a story, in part because every once in a while, Jon will speak directly to the reader.
Slouka: I don't know that I had a precise idea of how old he is. I think I imagined him being 28, 30, 32. Somewhere in that neighborhood. But through the novel, there's kind of a slippage there which I think is necessary. I had to be able to sort of slip back into the time when he was 17 or 18 so his voice shifts accordingly. I allow him to pull back into the future a little bit and then immerse himself more in the present moment.
You go by instinct. You don't plot it out, obviously. But that was one of the challenges for me, engineering the voice so that it was a real storyteller's voice. If I got it right, then you were able to be in that moment.
Jill: In those moments where Jon is immersed in that story, the book mimics the way time feels when you're a teenager. You don't really have anything particular to do, and sometimes you feel like you have all the time in the world.
Slouka: Yes. That was a big trick for me, actually remembering what it was like to be 17. It was a time when making a phone call meant finding a dime and a phone booth. It was a time when there were no cell phones. So you called when you got to someplace where you might be able to find someone who would lend you a phone or whatever.
And what was it like to be 17 and to have to walk everywhere because having a car was unthinkable? Nobody had a car. There are so many things that were different. Guys used to have fistfights. That's not okay anymore, at least not in most of the places around here. They still do it, but they aren't going to do it in schools.
And how do you make your way back to the '60s without sort of yapping about bell bottoms or peace signs or whatnot? It was just happening, and we didn't really know it was happening. Or we kind of did, but we didn't fully understand, certainly not if we were 16 or 17.
Jill: Jon says at one point, "There was no difference between the big and the small, the close and the far," meaning this backdrop of Vietnam and history playing out, and then the very specific local events of their own lives.
Slouka: What's that business about "the personal is always political"? That's what I was trying to get at. If the '60s were about anything, they were about liberation and power, about figuring out the limits of power, about pushing back against power. And the liberation movements of the '60s play out in these boys' lives. They each have to — what's that line from Woodstock? They have to get their souls free and their bodies along with it. And so the large is the small, as just a matter of perspective. There's a war going on in their lives just as surely as there's one going on in Southeast Asia.
Jill: That's why I loved that interlude with Jon and Tina...
Slouka: Pure '60s, right?
Jill: It is very '60s, and it feels like a moment where it's just a purely good, liberating experience, by and large. Jon gets a break there for a little while.
Slouka: That's like a real dose of the '60s. They're hanging around that cabin, and the guy's picking his toes, and they're passing a joint. They are talking about Jefferson Airplane and Herbert Marcuse and Let's Make a Deal.
So much of this book is about keeping the '60s at arm's length because, when the '60s were happening, we weren't constantly thinking, it's the '60s. At the same time, I wanted to have a moment, without being silly, when a certain kind of clear shot of that '60s thing came through. Make love not war, right? That's that scene.
Jill: Another thing I love about the book is that it's a really beautiful portrait of male friendship. What interested you about that dynamic?
Slouka: Love comes in a lot of different forms. Friendship at that age can be incredibly powerful and can be something you remember for a lifetime. What interested me here was the notion that they recognized in each other, whether consciously or not, some sort of common need, some sort of common plight. They are in pain in different ways. Out of that common need comes this friendship.
Brewster is a love story, really. I've always thought of it as a love story. But it's not necessarily the love story that occurs between Ray and Karen, though I worked hard at not making that sentimental. I think it's very much a love story between Ray and Jon.
There's something powerful in that for me. Friendship can be a very big deal. And, like love, it burns very hot when you are that young, when you're more open in certain ways. I wanted to try to get at that and try to make it as real as I could without falling into the many traps of sentimentality or what have you.
Jill: I think it's interesting, too, that neither of them is particularly communicative to each other through words or through language. They aren't talkers, really.
Slouka: That's one of the things that I found most enjoyable in this book. I had a narrator who doesn't really speak. He's very different from every other narrator I've had in my books. He's choked off.
So what I had to do was figure out a way of having him communicate through fewer words. It was the kind of constriction that not only posed a challenge but an opportunity. Jon can't say a lot of the things that he desperately wants to say. Ray isn't a talker, either. So what I had to get at was sort of the quality of friendship of these two boys — I had to be able to get at a certain level of introspection, but only through this narrowed-off window. That was interesting to me, because often you have people who say a great deal through very, very little. That was the challenge.
If anybody talks at all, it's probably Karen. And even she doesn't run on.
Jill: I do think that Ray and Karen's relationship is done beautifully, and it's not sentimental. It reminded me of a couple that I knew in high school who are still together and who are very happy.
Slouka: Really? Wow.
Jill: Was there a couple like that in your high school?
Slouka: Not really. No. I wish there had been. What a lovely thing that would have been. I guess there were couples that you saw where you thought, These people are supposed to be together.
I think I was just remembering that all-consuming feeling that happens when you are 17, 18, or 19 and you suddenly realize that there's this other person who was a stranger once who actually cares for you as much as you do for them. I mean, what's more potent than having someone love you? I don't think there's anything more seductive, anything more overwhelming than when you realize with shock, Oh my God. This person actually cares for me, wants me. I wanted to get at that.
I remember thinking, I'm going to burn on this. How do you write about young love without screwing it up, without having the condescension of maturity of like, well, I'm 55 and I'm looking back at these kids who were in love at 17? How easy it is to condescend and to think, Oh, please. Life will straighten you out. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. And maybe they were on to something quite extraordinary.
So I just wanted to give it full reign. I wanted to let it run. Ray looks up from the table. He's come back. He's beaten up. He's sitting at the cafeteria table and he looks up — and that's it. They're meant to be together and everybody else has to live with it. It's not for me to say whether I pulled it off. That one meant a lot to me, because that's really tricky territory to go into.
Jill: I was going back and reading some of your essays about the very beginnings of the Internet in War of the Worlds. It kind of struck me that Brewster celebrates exactly what you were worried about, or some of the things you were worried about humanity losing. It's very place-based and an empathetic and realistic portrait of these genuine, connected relationships.
Slouka: That's really interesting. Obviously, this wasn't something that was on my mind when I was writing, but I think you've put your finger on something important. If I look back on that time with anything like nostalgia... I'm not sure I do. There have been a lot of gains as well as losses. But one of the losses has been this sense of place. This sense of immediacy. You're in the present. I think the present moment is being compromised in ways that we haven't even begun to understand.
For example, a couple of times I've watched that documentary on Woodstock that Scorsese edited. Behind all the fluff that makes you cringe, there were these shots of three quarters of a million people sitting there on their tarps in the mud and whatever. There's not a single cell phone being held up. There's not one person taking a selfie. No one's streaming Richie Havens playing "Freedom." They're just there. They're there because they have to be because the technology hasn't been invented, obviously. But at the same time, I can't help but think you couldn't have that moment or any number of moments again, because we'd be 20 percent there and 80 percent somewhere else.
I do wonder what that means for us exactly. I had somebody say to me, "Sometimes it feels as though, if I've experienced something, until I've shared it with somebody, it hasn't really happened." Well, I don't think that's something that Ray and Jon and Karen were forced to deal with. There was the sense of right here, right now.
Jill: And what it means for a sense of self. If you're locating that externally in reactions to what you're sharing, I don't know.
Slouka: It's striking. Some part of you feels that it hasn't happened until you've shared it with 300 of your best friends. That's what I mean. Even crimes are being shared — by the people committing the crime. They feel a need to share. That is so interesting and so messed up at the same time.
What about the glory of just being in that one moment? When my kids are sitting on the bank of that reservoir with a transistor in the grass and they're still wet, and the water's the exact temperature of the air, it's perfection. There's no one else to know about it. No one else ever will. That moment will come, it'll go, and that's that. That's okay. I think that's very beautiful.
You and I could talk about this a long time. I think there are changes afoot that are much bigger than we've begun to reckon with. They're going to have a psychological effect that we haven't even begun to reckon. For better and for worse, maybe. My honest opinion is probably for the worst. Who knows? Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised.
Jill: In a Q&A with Colum McCann that I read, you suggested that maybe you're not done with this story. Is that still how you're feeling?
Slouka: Oh, very much so. I really have searched my soul on this because I'm so suspicious of things like that. Sometimes it's a novelist's easy out to say, Ooh! I'm in that vein. I'll just stay there for a while.
But Jon is very compelling to me. I'm in the sequel now. He's 58 years old. He's married to a woman named Alice. They've spent most of their lives in a place called Porterville, California, which I know well, though there's no reason anyone else should know it. It's a hole in the San Joaquin Valley. For various reasons, they have to move to a place called Winslow, which I also know well, in Arizona. He's 58 and he's pulling certain things together. Life has done what life does.
The thing that I find so interesting about it is that he's the same man but not, because he's 58. When you think back on when you were 16, when you're 55 like I am, it's like, Yeah, I'm the same guy, but I ain't, and yet I am. The voice is fascinating to me because I have to, in a way, distress it like a piece of furniture. He's lived; he's not a kid anymore. But at the same time, there has to be that recognizable quality; this has to be Jon Mosher. That's kind of cool.
I'm enjoying it more than I should. I'm very suspicious. It's like, Why does this feel so good? But, yes, it hasn't gone away. I don't think it will. It's moving.
I spoke with Mark Slouka on July 1, 2013.