Ed Tarkington is a debut novelist and a fearless one at that, unafraid to tackle any subject.
Though his bold and captivating novel, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” is set in the southwest Virginia town of Spencerville, his subjects cover the waterfront: Reaganomics, suicide, depression, the landed gentry vs. the new rich, public vs. private schools, step-parenting, bankruptcy, mental illness, lust, Bible study groups, clairvoyance, religious cults, even hippie-style murder.
The title, of course, comes from a Neil Young song. You may recall the lyrics: “When you were young / and on your own / how did it feel / to be alone? / I was always thinking / of games that I was playing. / Trying to make / the best of my time.”
Those words capture the novel’s tone of windswept loneliness that 8-year-old Richard “Rocky” Askew feels when he is apart from his beloved older half-brother – the rebellious, “effortlessly cool” 16-year-old Paul Askew. It’s the adult Rocky who narrates this tale of a world falling apart.
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With his one droopy eye and an unruly mop of wavy hair, Rocky is one of the most endearing characters in recent fiction. He tells us straight away that he prefers to call Paul his brother. (“This was partially out of loyalty – ...but mostly because it didn’t seem quite enough, having only half of one brother.”) Rocky spends lots of time in Paul’s upstairs bedroom, “shadowy and blue in the dusk,” windows open wide to lure the smoke from Paul’s incessantly burning Camels, Neil Young on the stereo.
Rocky and Paul were coming of age in the late 70s, which Tarkington describes as “at the sweaty, nauseous, split-headed peak of the hangover between Watergate and ‘Morning in America.’ ” Yet at home in Spencerville, “...we could still leave our doors open at night. We were isolated, insulated, largely ignored, and perfectly content.”
So how does a novelist infuse excitement into such benign terrain?
Tarkington, like Shakespeare, does it by allowing his characters to act out of their darker, more repressed emotions. Paul, abandoned by his alcoholic mother, takes Rocky for an outing and briefly abandons him in the woods. Almost immediately, Paul runs away with his girlfriend Leigh Bowman (the disapproving judge’s emotionally fragile daughter) and disappears for years.
Paul and Rocky’s father, the Old Man, as he’s called, becomes embroiled with the wealthy owner of Twin Oaks, the renovated mansion next door to his own “poor-man-made-good” Georgian. The old man’s low-burning rage was fueled years ago when he tried to buy the vacant mansion but was rejected by the town preservationists, who said they wanted it for a museum. Closer to the truth: the Old Man was not a descendant of the FFV (first families of Virginia).
And Rocky? He’s lonely without Paul, remember, and he falls in with the lusty daughter of the owner of Twin Oaks. Ten years his senior, Patricia seduces him in the loft of the horse barn and eventually makes straw of his heart.
One little pick. Early in the novel, Paul says to his friend Rayner: “Yeah, I know, right?” “Who knew the Old Man could be such a softy?” Both expressions are out of sync with the 1970s or even 1980s.
Bigger pick: Tarkington allows for a too-neat a wrap-up of characters and events. I can tolerate more messiness.
Overall, this Furman graduate who now lives in Nashville has delivered a clear winner – a taut, engrossing, crisply written tale of loss and abiding love.
“Only Love Can Break Your Heart”
By Ed Tarkington
Algonquin, 320 pages.