The friendships forged in childhood are often the ones that impact us most; even if those friends vanish from our lives, the marks they leave on us can remain forever.
Alex George’s new novel “Setting Free the Kites” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $27) tells the story of one such friendship, a bond between two boys brought together by proximity, united by personality and forever changed by tragedy. Their journey together as they share one another’s burdens both large and small offers a look at how shared experience reflects on the man that a boy might become.
The year is 1976. Robert Carter lives in a small Maine tourist town called Haverford; it’s the only place he has ever known. His father owns Fun-A-Lot, the local amusement park - an attraction that helps power the town tourism trade even as it is held together by little more than determination, luck and the sweat of Mr. Carter’s brow.
It's not the easiest of lives for Robert. His parents are consumed by their worry about Robert’s older brother Liam, who suffers from muscular dystrophy (though Liam doesn’t let the degenerative disease prevent him from joyously embracing his favorite music – specifically, punk icons like the New York Dolls, the Stooges and the Ramones). And there’s a bully – one who has made it his mission to ensure that school is no escape from misery for Robert.
But when a new boy named Nathan Tilly arrives from Texas, everything changes. Suddenly, Robert has a kindred spirit, a staunch defender and a best friend. And even when Nathan encounters his own tragic circumstances, the two form the sort of inseparable connection that only children of a certain age can create.
The two support one another through sadnesses far too great to be navigated alone. Nathan has opened Robert’s eyes to life’s joys, to the myriad possibilities that the world has to offer. And through it all, there is the park, there is the music … and there are the kites. As these two young men try to make that transition from child to adult, all they want to do is find their own ways to fly.
The term “coming of age” has become a sort of literary shorthand, a way to convey certain basic ideas about a narrative. Some might argue that the very notion has lost its meaning. But what Alex George has created here is an exquisite example of just such a narrative, a story that captures the purity of what it means to grow up. He has distilled the essence of childhood friendship into something sweet and intoxicating; he has set down on paper what it means – good and bad - to have a best friend.
“Setting Free the Kites” is a beautiful tale, one whose underlying truth will ring familiar to all. It’s a story to which all can relate; anyone who has ever had a friend will carry forward an inherent understanding of what these two boys mean to each other. There is plenty of sadness mixed in with the joy, but that too reflects the power of friendship; having a loyal companion by your side – someone on whom you can lean when necessary – can make even the bleakest of times a little brighter.
George’s gifts as a storyteller are considerable; he has built a narrative that consumes, that draws the reader in to an impressive degree. It is – as loath as I am to stoop to the cliché – a page-turner in the most positive sense of the term. The combination of compelling narrative and authorial craft is such that the book proves nigh-impossible to put down.
“Setting Free the Kites” is sharp and clever, charged with the love inherent to young friendship. Sweet and serious and goofy and sad, it will likely inspire memories of those friends who long ago changed you for the better.