There is a certain enlightenment when reading a great coming-of-age novel. No matter how dire or downtrodden a character seems to be in that book, there is a strong sense of empathy a reader has for that character because they can relate to their own upbringing. And then the reader gains a sense that they are not alone with their pain. That is certain the emotions that will occur to any reader of Eddie’s Bastard by William Kowalski.
I arrived in this world the way most bastards do – by surprise. That’s the only fact about myself that I knew at the beginning of my life. At the very beginning of course, I knew nothing. Babies are born with minds as blank as brand-new notebooks, just waiting to be written in, and I was no exception. Later, as I grew older and learned things – as the pages of the notebook, so to speak, became filled up – I began to make certain connections, and thus I discovered that among children I was unusual. Where others had a mother, I had none; father, same; birth certificate, none; name, unknown. And as soon as I was old enough to understand that babies didn’t just appear from mid air, I understood that my arrival was not just a mystery to myself. It was a strange occurrence to everyone who knew me.
Readers are vaulted in the life of Billy Mann as he is deposited on the doorstep of his grandfather’s decrepit estate in New York state. We follow Billy’s twist and turns from his infancy to his childhood to his teenage years. He experiences the usual items and chaos that occur to any male during that period of life but he also must endure questions about his troubled background, which make for a gripping drama.
Second grade passed for Annie and me in this manner, and so did third and then forth, and the years rocked along like the cars of a speeding train. None of my classmates seemed to mind that I was a Mann; the Fiasco of the Ostriches, it appeared, had been forgotten by everyone except Grandpa, and nobody made fun of me for it. And Annie’s hand stayed in mine right up to the year we turned thirteen, or so it felt, which was when things of note began once more to happen. Perhaps the holding-hands part is merely my imagination, because thirteen was when I began to feel shy around her. But shyness notwithstanding, we were together, and before I knew it we were in eighth grade, which was the year of The Steamroller.
Early each morning of that year, just as she had every morning for the last several years, Annie walked down the hill from her house and met me at the corner of Mann Road and the County Road. The County Road never had a name except for just that: the County Road. It was like everything else in town: The Square, The Oak, The School, The Steamroller. In a town the size of Mannville, where there is generally only one of everything, there’s not much point in giving things a proper name; everyone knows what your talking about.
Annie’s father didn’t know she and I were walking to school together. If he had, he would have found some way to stop us, maybe even by forbidding her to come to school altogether. He hadn’t spoken to me since the day Grandpa slipped on the ice, six years ago now. That was because I’d my best to avoid his presence, never going into the house or any nearer to it than I needed to let Annie know I was waiting. He sat in front of the television all day, leaving the house only to buy beer, which he drank on the couch until he passed out. I knew this only from Annie, of course. I hadn’t dared to set foot inside the Simpson house again. His belly, according to her, was growing larger, his skin turning the sallow shade of death, his eyes smaller and beadier and more and more like the devil’s. She shuddered when she spoke of him. I learned not to bring him up.
On the way to school Annie and I compared lunches, and if she didn’t have enough I would give her some of mine. She packed her own lunch every morning, but often there was little to put in it: a hard-boiled egg or two, or a peanut butter sandwich. Doritios were her favorite. Mine too. They were the only thing I was jealous of giving her. Anything else I had was hers unconditionally, even my fried baloney sandwiches.
Kowalski does a great job of weaving the confusion around Billy Mann’s life into a great story. His words here are simple yet at times lyrical. A reader can easily follow the story and the mind’s eye easily envisions the people and places created here. And the range of emotions that are brought out at times are vivid as well.
Just as Annie walked away, I saw him. The Corvette was cruising like a hungry shark down Frederic Avenue, which ran in front of the main doors of the senior high building. I neither slowed nor hurried my pace, but my heart began to thump rapidly and I felt hot blood pulsing through every inch of me. It was definitely David Weismueller. I knew that car well. Dreams of him in his Corvette were beginning to supplant the dreams of soldiers chasing me through the woods.
A moment later he saw me, stepped on the gas, and roared up to where I stood. Then he unfolded himself from the driver’s seat and stood before me, a splendid example of Homo erectus more than Homo sapiens, but bent over considerably so that he could push his face threateningly into mine.
“What did you say?” he said.
This was his most common opening, to pretend I’d just said something to him that no man of honor could ignore. It was useless to protest, although I usually did anyway. But this morning I was feeling different. My eyes swept him from toe to head, taking in his sneakers, his jeans, his letterman’s jacket, and finally his eyes, which were as vacant and glaring as two laminated meatballs.
“I said your mother sucks large dicks,” I replied. “She sucks for bucks. Ten dollars a pop. I think you’re the only guy on the football team who doesn’t know.”
David Weismueller’s neatly shaved jaw dropped about three inches. I knew it would be wise to shut up, but it was already too late. I threw caution to the wind.
Eddie’s Bastard by William Kowalski is a brilliant coming-of-age novel. The prose is lyrical and simple and the plot is well-constructed. It is an enlightening and engrossing read.