If Brent Spencer's taut and skillful first novel were a self-help book, its title might be "Men Whose Fathers Didn't Love Them (and Whose Women Unwisely Did)."
Fortunately, this is fiction instead. And although Spencer cuts his slice of life fairly narrowly--tracing the effects of child abuse through three generations of a Pennsylvania family--his ear for dialogue, his feel for the region, his spare but exact prose and his rich characterizations make it much more than a case history.
Spencer tosses us straight into the action. To teen-age Nick, tenant farmer Lloyd Redmond, his de facto stepfather, is a "monster" who drinks too much and flares up at him unpredictably. Nick "juices" Redmond by switching on an electrified fence--on purpose, the older man believes. Redmond nails Nick into a chicken coop--to give them both time to cool down, he thinks, but to Nick it's proof that Redmond "wanted to hit him, wanted his blood."
Both are off balance because Ellen Loomis, Nick's mother and Redmond's 12-year girlfriend, has gone. Tired of Redmond leaving her every year or two, Loomis this time did the leaving.
In California, though, she wonders why she left Nick as well. She boards a bus back east--not to return, exactly, but to "clarify a few things, make her motives understood, draw a little--just a little--of Redmond's blood."
Meanwhile, Nick, missing his mother and feeling betrayed by her, goes to high school wearing an earring. A bully calls him a derogatory name for a gay person and beats him up. Nick is unjustly suspended. On his own for the first time in his life, he meets a rebellious girl named Chase, who is even more willing than he to run away.
Meanwhile, Redmond's landlord, Jack Teague, has been left by his wife, Dina. Now head of the local zoning board, she moves to cite the substandard dwelling units from which Teague draws much of his income. His first reaction, fueled by tequila, is typically childish: Get some cans of kerosene and burn them all down.
Meanwhile--one more meanwhile--Redmond's father, a retired Navy officer, is prowling around town in his custom-built camper, seeking reconciliation on his own peculiar terms.
"The Commander," as Redmond calls him, opines that "any man over the age of 21 who still blames his parents for the way his life turned out . . . needs to take a long hard look in the mirror." Still, he concedes, "you can't live your life without making a few boners. . . . I may have failed as a father, but I was a noble failure."
The Commander misrepresents the case. He is, in fact, the true monster. He has beaten Redmond and been a sadist in other ways. Yet, as monsters sometimes do, he denies his darker side so completely that he can present an unbroken facade to the world: competence, heroism, a Boy Scout cleanliness of speech that charms women who don't know him well.
Redmond, in contrast, can't hide his brokenness. Like matter and antimatter, the split-off parts of him collide and negate each other. He plans Commander-like projects and abandons them, works hard but at dead-end jobs. He yearns for love but distrusts it when it comes. He is neither the effective martinet his father was nor the nice guy he would like to be.
The women are key indicators. The Commander's downtrodden wife has finally deserted him. "A very troubled woman," he says blandly, so clueless that we find ourselves speculating with a ghost of sympathy: What was his father like?
Teague, good ol' boy and dissolute slob, has turned Dina into a virago. Nick's problems, on the other hand, seem solvable, because Redmond, who has struggled to overcome his heritage, hasn't failed as badly as the Commander. Chase can love Nick unreservedly, although their prospects--two dropouts eloping--are uncertain at best.
Nick's mother, Ellen, herself fragmented enough to have had an affair with Teague, is the only kind of woman who could love Redmond, and even then she can love only part of him. On the cross-country bus trip, she agonizes: Is that enough?
Spencer paces this novel of character as if it were a thriller. In the end, everything converges on Redmond, the real "lost son" of the title. Can he ever be found? And would being found save or destroy him? As self-help books seldom can, Spencer makes us care.