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  1. Book ImageBrewster: A Novel

    Mark Slouka

    "Intense and elegiac…devastatingly agile." —New York Times Book Review

An Interview with Mark Slouka

A common theme in your writing is the question of what it means to be human and how to maintain one’s humanity in the modern world. Did that theme come into play in Brewster?

Absolutely, sure. Because the fight to retain your humanity, to do the right thing, is even more desperate when you’re young, maybe because you have fewer options, or think you do, because you haven’t learned to rationalize your failures, because the forces aligned against you—teachers, cops, so-called “friends,” even parents, at times—can feel overwhelming.

Brewster is a real place. Is it anything like the fictional Brewster you’ve created?

I’m looking out at Brewster as I write: snow flurries, the last crusts of ice on the hills, day laborers huddled on the corner, waiting for work. I’ve known this place, off and on, for fifty years. Our daughter went to Brewster High. Brewster’s changed some; the 5&10 is Levine’s Auto Parts now, the A&P is gone, but it’s still rough around the edges. Most people drive by—though I like the reservoirs, the woods, the history I’ve made here. The funny thing is that the Brewster I imagined has taken over the actual place; I see Jon and Ray and Karen everywhere now, walking in the rain, cutting into the woods by the reservoir, throwing stuff into the West Branch. . . . I walk up to Garden Street and I see Jon and Frank looking over the town to the cemetery on the hill.

There are many authority figures in your new novel—parents, teachers, cops—but they are all flawed in some way. It often seems like the teenagers have a stronger moral compass. Is that indicative of the general feeling during the ’60s?

There are some strong adults in Brewster—Falvo, Jimmy, Mary—but it’s true, the moral center is with the kids, probably because I instinctively side with them. And, yeah, I guess you could say that reflects the “never trust anyone over thirty” spirit of the ’60s. But I think it’s more complicated than that, and I tried to express that in the novel. For one thing, you can find as many hypocrites and sell-outs in high school as you can in a retirement home; honor and decency aren’t age-specific. For another, it’s easier to be idealistic at eighteen, before the world’s had a chance to work on you. Which is why if you’re still holding on to some version of your ideals when you’re forty, or fifty, if you haven’t given in to the temptation to throw them under the train in the name of “the real world,” you’re somebody I want to know.

It is interesting that you have two characters, Jon’s mother and Ray’s father, who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder in a time when this disorder was just beginning to gain recognition. Why did you feel it was important to have your characters struggle in this way?

Because the hits we take in this life make us who we are. What makes people human to me is their pain and how they deal with it; I’ve always been moved by the fact that some survive with grace, grow more decent, more compassionate, while others break, or become brutal themselves. My mother, a loving woman when I was young, eventually broke under her burdens; my father, who had his share, carried his into an old age of hard-earned wisdom, humor, love. Go figure.

The loss of childhood innocence is a popular theme in coming-of-age novels. Although Jon and Ray don’t have much childhood innocence left in them, do you think Brewster could be considered a coming-of-age novel?

I’d like to think it’s bigger than that, if only because “coming of age” implies a process with a destination—adulthood—that I’m not sure I believe in. I mean, sure, we grow older, perhaps even wiser, but why is it that the phrase “you’re an adult now” always sounds like “come inside, you have school tomorrow”?

The main character, Jon, runs track. Why is this significant, and did you rely on your personal experiences to write the running scenes?

In the ’60s and ’70s—maybe even today, for all I know—track attracted the rebels, the nonconformists, the outcasts. Jon, like Ray, is a kind of antihero (a classically American character that’s gone out of fashion in America), a loner. What else could he do but run track? And yeah, I used my own experience, my memories of those I ran with. At our meets, we had no crowds, no band, no cheerleaders. Maybe a couple of girlfriends huddled in the wind, a few parents, skipping work. And we liked it that way.

Although he often gets in trouble, and society doesn’t think he will amount to much, do you think that Ray is a good role model? Why?

He’s got a big heart, he’s fundamentally honest, he’s enduring an impossible situation (foolishly, but he’s young) with amazing courage, and he’s unswervingly loyal to those he loves. What qualities could make a better role model? As to the fact that society doesn’t think he’ll amount to much, I’d take it as a compliment considering some of the bastards society has anointed.

Women seem to respond to your work, which seems surprising given that you tend to write from a guy’s perspective. Do you think that women read your work because they want to know what men (even troubled, held-in characters like Jon) think?

Maybe. I hope so. I mean, men can be so damn constipated; try going to Bob’s Diner and having a real conversation with a bunch of guys and the reaction’s going to be, “What’re we, a bunch of chicks?” I’d like to find the idiot who first sold us the notion that talking (about anything we might actually be thinking or feeling) is somehow unmanly, that admitting you’re hurting, for example, is the same as admitting you’re weak. It’s a neat trick, if you think about it, because the exact opposite is true: Puff out your chest and pretend you can handle anything on God’s green earth and I know for a fact that you can’t and that you’ll probably cave when the heat comes down. So, yes, maybe women read me because no matter how locked up they are, how scared of it they are, my guys try to talk, to think, to figure out what the hell’s going on in their hearts.

The late David Foster Wallace once wrote something about foreseeing an end to the Age of Irony in the novel; he certainly seemed to yearn for it. Do you think novels like Brewster might be leading the way?

I don’t know that the Age of Irony has to end, but I wouldn’t mind it ceding a bit of territory. I mean, the ironic, clever, hipper-than-thou voice has ruled the roost for so long now that anything else is considered sentimental slop. It’s not—or not necessarily—so. Irony has produced gorgeous, searing books, but it can also become an affectation, a pose; you can almost see the fingers making the invisible quotation marks in the air: “So Sean, is it LOVE?” Which isn’t clever, it’s cowardice. By the same token, of course, the lack of irony can signal naïveté, but it can also mean that the writer’s willing to grapple with the things that move us, trouble us.

Bottom line? I get tired of party chatter; at some point I want to get to the heart of it. Which is why the books I love and remember, the books I hope to write, are the ones that touch something, that aim for the sweet spot of precision and soul.

Discussion Questions

  1. The novel is named for the town it is set in, and it has a tremendously vivid sense of place. Describe the town of Brewster. In what ways is the setting important to this novel?
  2. The author portrays a close friendship between two teenage boys in Brewster, a relationship less often portrayed than one between girls. Did you think that Jon and Ray’s friendship was an unlikely one? What made the two boys close? Did their relationship seem the same as ones you know between teen girls?
  3. The narrator of Brewster is an adult Jon Mosher telling the story of his past. Why do you think the author made this choice? How would the novel be different if it were narrated by sixteen-year-old Jon Mosher in the present?
  4. Jon’s affair with Tina feels like a hiatus, a brief escape from his real life and troubles, and she never reappears in the story. What might Jon have learned from his relationship with Tina that he brings to the rest of his experiences in the novel?
  5. Brewster is set in 1968, a year after the summer of love and at the peak of the Vietnam War, but in small-town Brewster those events feel very far away. Describe the ways in which the novel evokes the late 1960s and brings that period to life. How has American culture changed in the fifty years since then in terms of racism, notions of acceptable behavior, and how teens get around and communicate?
  6. Discuss the character of Karen Dorsey. What draws Ray and Jon to her, and she to them? What do you think made Karen choose Ray over Jon? If you were Karen, whom would you prefer?
  7. Who’s your favorite adult character in Brewster? Falvo? Jimmy? Mr. Mosher? Someone else? Why?
  8. Brewster can be characterized as a coming-of-age story. Describe the ways in which Jon, Ray, and Karen grow over the course of the novel. What do they each learn about themselves, the nature of love, and the wider world?
  9. Describe how the novel treats first love. Did it feel real to you or remind you of the first time you fell in love?
  10. Jon’s parents and Ray’s father all have dark pasts, and both families are abusive, though the abuse takes different forms. Are there parallels to be drawn between Jon and Ray’s families? Jon and Ray each find some acceptance with the other’s family. Discuss how this happened and why it makes sense.
  11. What does running come to mean to Jon? Does it mean something different at the beginning of the novel than it does at the end?
  12. In the final chapter, Jon says, “I thought about him over the years. Wondered, sometimes, if it could have all played differently. If we’d lost, maybe, before we started” (279). Discuss the ending of the novel. Do you think that Jon, Ray, and Karen were doomed from the start? In what ways will the characters escape Brewster, and in what ways will it never truly leave them? Do you feel that your own hometown has left an imprint on you?

About Mark Slouka

Mark Slouka’s most recent books are the memoir Nobody’s Son and the award-winning novel Brewster. His work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Essays, and the PEN / O. Henry Prize Stories. He lives in Brewster, New York.

Books by Mark Slouka

  1. Book CoverAll That Is Left Is All That Matters: Stories

    A searing, poignantly rendered collection of stories chronicling the lives of ordinary people battling the forces of love and loss.More

  2. Book CoverBrewster: A Novel

    "Intense and elegiac…devastatingly agile." —New York Times Book ReviewMore

  3. Book CoverGod's Fool: A Novel

    If you can read [God’s Fool] without being astonished and touched, then you’d better check to see if your heart is made of stone…simply brilliant. A book of the year.More