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Boys of summer – ‘Soon the Light Will Be Perfect’

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There’s nothing quite like a good coming-of-age-story.

Literature is riddled with great tales of young men and women dealing with that shift in circumstances between worlds, that transition from childhood to adulthood and the expansive gray area in the middle of it all. There’s something primal and undeniable about it all.

Dave Patterson’s “Soon the Light Will Be Perfect” (Hanover Square Press, $25.99) tells the story of two young men growing up in small-town Vermont. The pair must navigate the strictures of their family’s Catholic faith while also coming to terms with their own gradual (and not-so-gradual) changes. As personal and professional problems threaten to overwhelm the family, the boys are left trapped by unappealing choices and hungry for a deeper understanding of the world – the world around them and the world within them.

It’s the turn of the decade – moving from the 1980s into the ‘90s. An unnamed boy, just 12 years old, lives in a small, poor town in rural Vermont. His father works at a nearby factory, building military hardware; there have been numerous layoffs and the father worries about the security of his job. His mother is a homemaker, staying at home to care for both sons, the 12-year-old and his older brother. The family has just moved out of the town’s trailer park – indicative of upward mobility.

They are fiercely Catholic, devoted wholeheartedly to the church; the youngsters serve as altar boys, while the adults are heavily involved in everything up to and including protests of Planned Parenthood. With the lead-up to and onset of the Gulf War, the father begins to feel his job is a bit safer, though it will eventually present a whole different set of complications.

And then, the mother is diagnosed with cancer.

The family’s responses run the gamut. The father winds up obsessing over the new table he’s building for the family’s dining room, a project that leaves him seeing imaginary imperfections and picking at nonexistent nits. The older brother wraps himself in the trappings of teenagerdom, leaving behind the childish adventures he had with his brother in order to spend most of his time with his new girlfriend. The younger boy, at a loss with how to deal with any of it, gets swept into the morass of his own interiority; he’s conflicted about the strange new desires rising within him. And when he meets a girl his age named Taylor – a girl with her own set of problems – his life is changed forever.

All the while, his mother’s life slowly ebbs away.

“Soon the Light Will Be Perfect” is a story of summer, of how one family’s lives were irrevocably altered by the events of a single season. It tells a tale of growing up, and how some aspects of that process can move far too fast while others proceed at a glacial pace. There’s no one-size-fits-all passage toward adulthood; it happens when it happens, whether you’re ready for it or not. It’s that abruptness, the confusion that comes with being forced to take a leap when you haven’t yet had a chance to look – that’s what Patterson captures so elegantly here.

I was the same age as these characters at this same time. I lived in a world not all that far removed from the one in which this family exists. In that realm, there’s a strange vibe, a semi-constant feeling combining misplaced excitement and boredom. That’s as close as I can come to describing it – it’s difficult to articulate – but I’m betting Dave Patterson knows PRECISELY what I mean. Small towns can instill weirdly specific worldviews in their young – a sort of juve-nihilism that kids usually (but not always) mostly outgrow.

“Soon the Light Will Be Perfect” makes some bold stylistic choices as well. By not naming the characters at the center of his narrative, Patterson opens the door for a more direct empathetic engagement by the reader. It’s a gambit that only pays off because the author proves up to the task; it could have read as gimmicky, but instead encourages emotional projection. That character connection is further aided by the first-person perspective, lending a directly experiential feel to the story.

There’s nothing like a good coming-of-age story; Dave Patterson has given us just that with “Soon the Light Will Be Perfect.” It’s a sharp, quick reading experience – one whose specificity and honesty renders it all the more memorable. And if you’re like me – born of a certain time and place – you’ll feel more than a hint of recognition.

Last modified on Wednesday, 17 April 2019 13:31

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