“Early in life, my grandfather told me that only three things were certain: birth, death and time. And time only ticked one way; it went forward and never back. It came to be a recurring wish with me, the desire to turn back the clock, to undo what I had done. Always wishing for the impossible, my feet stuck firm in the molasses of the present, unable to shrug off decisions I had made and their unforeseen or disregarded consequences.”
J.J Walsh and Tony ‘El Greco’ Papadakis are inseparable. Smoking Kents out on an abandoned cannery dock, and watching gulls sway on rusting buoys in the sea, they dream of adventure…a time when they can act as adults. The day they’ll see the mighty Pacific Ocean.
Set in small-town New Jersey in the 1960s, against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, Dust follows the boys through the dry heat of a formative summer. They face religious piety and its murderous consequences, alcohol, girls, sex, loss, tragedy and ultimately the tiny things that combine to make life what it is for the two friends – a great adventure.
But it’s a road trip through the heart of southern America with J.J.’s father that truly reveals a darker side to life – the two halves of a divided nation, where wealth, poverty and racial bigotry collide. This beautifully written debut novel would not be out of place alongside the work of Steinbeck and Philipp Meyer’s American Rust.
At turns funny, and at others heart-achingly sad, their story unfolds around the honest and frequently irreverent observations of two young people trying to grow up fast in a world that is at times confusing, and at others seen with a clarity only the young may possess.
What I Thought:
Strong, oppressive and at times melancholy, Dust put me very much in mind of Stand by Me in the feel of the writing and, although there are only the two boys in Dust, their relationship struck me as very similar to that of the boys in that story, and the central theme of a ‘coming of age’ is put across well.
I was initially drawn to the novel by the evocative cover image which, when I got really into the book, was perfect to capture the feel of a carefree summer with endless days of heat and boredom as told by central character JJ.
1960s New Jersey is vividly painted, down to the breeze off the water at the old cannery that the boys visit to smoke and cuss away from grown-up eyes, and the contrasts of their home to different parts of the country on their roadtrip is an education in those vast differences that occur in such a large country as the US. At points it’s easy to forget that this is not a contemporary novel, but the episode where the boys wander into a black neighbourhood brings it back with a jolt.
Aside from the strong relationship between JJ and El Greco, JJ forms important bonds with adult members of the community, Mr Taylor in particular, and they act as a subjective sounding board, allowing JJ to make sense of his world, a world where Vietnam and Woodstock are not just a matter for the history books.
In terms of plot, the novel is introspective and relaxed, not driven by a surging, action-packed narrative and this definitely makes it a book to think about. As a debut novel it is really excellent.
This post is part of the blog tour for the novel, which started this week. There is still more to come from the blogs listed below. Please do take a look…
Find out more about Mark Thompson on his website.
I was given a copy of Dust by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.