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Brandon Duffy's book is quietly a very literary work: plotted, looping back, referring to older genres, calling forth ghosts. It is a revisiting-the-childhood-home novel; it is a high-school-love-gone-wrong novel; it's a novel about tracking down a serial killer in a small town; it is a boyhood-pals novel; it is even a Hermit-in-the-Woods fairy-tale; a creaky Ghosts-in-the-Old-Castle novel, and a novel about the Water Monster, vaguely sexual, almost human, lurking in the deep.
However, it is also a revenge tragedy in which the sins of the fathers are indeed visited upon the children. Hamlet's story of loss and abandonment here is humanized and imprinted upon small-town high-school boys. Today, such boys play out their angst by leaving FedEx package bombs on the doorsteps of people they do not know; or they carry assault weapons to schools and leave the school hallways bloody with their private unhappiness. Perhaps in this, THE STORM KING is, in a way, innocent, a Before-the-Bomb novel. In it, a group of high school friends, feeling wronged by the doings of those around them, play a series of pranks against those whom they see as their tormenters. The pranks get out of hand. The boys' leader is a young Nate McHale, who calls himself The Storm King. Each of the boys carries the stigmata of simply growing up.
Dramatis personae: Nate McHale aka the Thunder King and the protagonist of our tale, now a resident in oncology in New York, but 14 years ago a high school senior in Greystone Lake, a small town in the Adirondacks; Nate's wife Meg, daughter Livvy; Nate's grandmother, Gram, who owns a pub called Union Points, and who raised Nate after his family was killed in a car wreck; Tom Buck, Nate's boyhood friend who becomes a policeman in Greystone Lake, and who hides a terrible guilt; Tom's dad, who is chief of police; Lucy Bennett, high school flirt, first Adam's girl, then Nate's, and later, her bones belong to the woods; Lucy's father, responsible for killing Nate's family in a drunk-driving accident; Johnny Van Houten, one of Nate's boyhood pals, whose father beat him when he (the father) was drunk; Owen Liffey, one of Nate's boyhood pals, whose mother tormented him; Just June and her sister May, prostitutes, later, the Eumenides; the next generation of high school kids, all of whom assume that Nate killed Lucy Bennett; TJ Bennett and James Bennett, Lucy's siblings; Pete Corso, upon whose father Nate's group perpetuated a terrible prank that went wrong; Maura Jeffers, who is found dead; mothers, fathers, school administrators and teachers, store owners; a hurricane named Medea, after the queen who killed her children in retribution; a rotting hulk of an entertainment center on a pier built out on Greystone Lake, which the town's high schoolers call The Night Ship.
The story: Nate Hale returns to the town where he grew up. In many ways, the town is idyllic: small, close, surrounded by natural beauty. Through flashbacks that alternate between Nate's childhood, his senior year in high school, and "now," however, we learn that nature is the canvas, and human nature is the painting. When Nate was still a child, a drunk driver ran his family's car off the road, killing all except for Nate, whose arm reminds him, every time it rains, of the injuries he sustained, physical and psychological. As Nate grew into young manhood, his group of guy friends hatched the idea that they would get even with those who had wronged them by means of boyish pranks. As a group, Nate was the leader, and his nom de guerre was The Storm King. Things, of course, get out of hand. The little fire they start burns down someone's house. Someone loses a job and can no longer support the family. Divorce, destitution. And finally, at their high school graduation party, one of them disappears.
Fast forward. Nate is a pediatric oncologist who tries to save sick children. He is married to a woman he loves and admires, and they have a beautiful child, as Nate was once a beautiful child. Meanwhile, back in Greystone Lake, Nate's hometown, a body has been found, the young woman who went missing during the graduation party, and she had been raped, then murdered. Because the murdered woman had been Nate's girlfriend, Nate returns for the funeral, and he returns, as well, to memory, to consequences, and to retribution.
His boyhood friends, haunted by their parents' prejudices and beliefs, are scarred in their adulthood, by their childhoods. Nate's friend Tom is an alcoholic who lives in a shoddy house, while in public he is an upright, uniformed police officer. Another boyhood friend, abused by his parents, holds a terrible secret. And, when Nate arrives, pranks are being played on him and upon those who were his close circle. Many of these pranks are not at all innocent. They are meant to wound. When Nate returns, and one prank severely injures his grandmother, his only remaining elder family member, and burns her business to the ground, Nate begins looking for the pranksters, and asking what their relation might be to his murdered girlfriend from high school days.
Although the literary references to Joyce, Twain, Wordsworth, and, perhaps, Gregory Corso are not necessary to the plot or themes of Duffy's work, I am enthusiastic about this novel and this writer because the book tried some "big" ideas, such as, where does badness come from? How do we learn to be what we become? It also counters the "Awww, that's just an innocent prank," "Awww, he only had one beer" lines of thinking, in which one may imagine that one's actions are too insignificant to have consequences.
§ Cathy Downs is Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, where she teaches American literature and is a fan, as well, of accomplished whodunits.
Reviewed by Cathy Downs, March 2018
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