It’s 1972. Katie and her friends live in Elephant Beach, Long Island. Most of the action takes place around Comanche Street where Desi owns a candy store called ‘Eddy’s’ and Mitch lives in one of the rooms at The Starlight Hotel.
I’d been hanging around Comanche Street for three years and there were still times when it felt like I was watching a movie starring everyone I knew in the world, except me. The feeling would come up on me even when I was surrounded by a million people: in school, on the beach, sitting at the counter in Eddy’s.
Katie, eighteen, has been watching Luke McCallister, twenty-one, for three years. As the book begins, he’s just returned from Vietnam and she thinks anything happening without him in it isn’t really worth it.
She spends most of her time hanging out with her friends Liz and Nanny. The three of them are beginning to understand the world from an adult point-of-view while starting to have sex, drink and try drugs. This is much to the disappointment of Katie’s mum, in particular, who expects her daughter to be upwardly mobile, not only going to Carver Community College because she’d failed a class.
Early in the book, Liz declares she’s had sex with Cory McGill, a twenty-year-old who works at her dad’s car dealership.
‘Do I look different?’ She asked. ‘I feel different.’ She ran her hands down her breasts, over her stomach. ‘What if I’m pregnant?’ she whispered.
Nanny’s eyes grew huge with alarm. She looked at me. Suddenly I felt depressed and I didn’t know why.
‘Is that what you want?’ I asked.
Liz just smiled her new smile, her eyes staring at us backward through the mirror. ‘Wouldn’t that be a trip, man?’ Walking down the aisle at graduation with Cory’s baby inside me?’ She turned sideways, her hands clasped over her womb. ‘Wouldn’t that just be something else?’
The book’s largely taken up with the relationships between those who hang around Comanche Street – who’s sleeping with who; who doesn’t need to find out they’re being cheated on; who’s pregnant – but Chicurel doesn’t turn it into a soap opera and there are two ways she avoids it; the first is the pace of the book: it meanders as though to mirror real life. There’s a loose plot but nothing that’s going to make you want to race through the pages. That’s not a criticism, I enjoyed the slow build, the layering of events and characters, but it won’t be to everyone’s taste. The second is the continual presence of Vietnam, mostly through the characters of Luke and Mitch. Mitch, thirty, who spends his days drinking, waiting for his next disability allowance to be paid, warns Katie about getting close to Luke:
‘Minefields everywhere you look. Tiny little whores, so beautiful they could make your heart stop, packing razor blades. Vietnamese birth control, cut you right where it hurts. Had a buddy kill one of ‘em for what she done to him.
I shuddered just thinking about it. I had enough trouble shaving my legs, trying not to cut my shinbone to ribbons with the razor. ‘But how does that even work?’
‘No fucking idea, but the damage is done,’ Mitch said. He licked the dregs of his glass and signalled to Len for another.
‘And then you come back,’ he said. ‘To this fucking sinkhole. All that Stars and Stripes forever crap. And instead of a ticker-tape parade – though you ask me, who needs that bullshit – you get some sixteen-year-old twat – sorry, sweetheart, but that’s what she was – whose dress doesn’t even cover her ass, asking are you proud of yourself, killing all those babies…But no one ever talks about the four-year-olds with dynamite strapped all over ‘em, walking at you, waving, “Hey, GI! Okay, GI!” Putting their arms out for you to pick ‘em up and hug ‘em so you could blow the fuck up.’
There are some dark and brutal moments in the book. Some of those come from the men who’ve served in Vietnam, others from the young women who come of age in a working-class community.
Through what reads more like a collection of closely linked short stories, rather than a novel, Chicurel creates a world and characters at various stages of their lives, struggling with their reality. If you like slow-burning books, there’s much to savour here.
Thanks to Headline for the review copy.