Wednesday, April 18, 2012
"The Bastard Year," Richard Lee Zuras
Author Richard Lee Zuras either has a teenage son or a very good memory. The sum total of "The Bastard Year" seems to confirm the latter
In this novella, Zuras gives voice to Zain, a Northern Virginia product coming of age in 1980 as the nation stood on the cusp of a conservative turn that would mark it indelibly.
The Iran Hostage crisis, gas lines, Jimmy Carter's plateful of problems, Ronald Reagan and a CIA director by the name of George Bush are make appearances here, but only as backdrop to this story of a family's struggle to remain together, or, break apart.
It's hard to tell and it's supposed to be hard to tell.
The novella is turned out through Zain's voice, a teenager in habit and deed, but a soul aging more quickly with the multiplying troubles of his mother and father.
The author's got a great touch when it comes to the stupid things teens do, all the while understanding they're not trying to be stupid, or trying to be anything; that they don't have an answer to the parentally plaintiff
"What were you thinking?" because thought never entered into it.
Holden Caufield comes to mind, though what's different here in the instant case are the times, the circumstances, and the evolution in adolescent assertiveness.
Zuras bangs an offbeat drum. There are no build-ups and no moments when things are supposed to occur.
And while the drama and trouble confronting the characters in this story are low-level, the writer maintains an uncomfortable, fear-laced tension.
For example, Zain and father have an outing to the nation's capital, with dad pulling on a bottle of booze the whole time while The Son steals hot dogs from a vendor that he'd been given money for.
"We walked down past the government buildings to the edge of the Tidal Basin and sat on the grass under a cherry blossom. It had been months since they had bloomed, but you could still spot their petals decaying in the grass."
Having lived through the era, highwayscribery can attest to the accuracy of the 1970s reconstruction occurring between the covers of this thin tome. It has remarkable recall, an effective mix of extinct consumer products, political storms, musical references, and action once casual that is now impossible.
"I looked around for a place to go to the bathroom. All the House office buildings look like they were closed."
Who today would even take a stab at entering the Capital for such a purpose?
Throughout "The Bastard Year" you have a sense of an America gone by, an America where woods were interspersed with development and doctoring a driver's license so you could get into a bar, child's play.
The lives of the family in "The Bastard Year," remind us that we were freer once, if less informed about substance abuse, depression, and family dynamics.
Zuras' moody portrait is of the noncommercial type. Those who escape to book, those who have enough of reality from reality, or require something more sweeping, would do well to go elsewhere.
Those who don't flinch at the darkness may find the universal and the therapeutic in this well-crafted tale of survival, perseverance, and learning.