IN MY LIFE. By Thomas Dresser. Red Lead Press. Spring 2009. $17, softcover.
Young love in the sixties. These five words summarize In My Life, the brief, quirky and charming novel by local author Thomas Dresser. Set against the backdrop of the turmoil of the bygone decade, In My Life tells the story of Rusty and Jodie, two teenagers in central Massachusetts whose blossoming love is colored by the sexual revolution, rock and roll, and the draft board.
For many born after 1970, the edification of the sixties has turned to calcification. Grainy film footage of Woodstock, Vietnam, Haight Ashbury and Jimi Hendrix has grown stale. Did the youth of America really want to change the world by dancing in the park, or were they just trying to get high and avoid jobs? Why haven’t the aging hippies gotten over themselves and their youth? What does it say when the most important years of their lives have been over for 39-plus years? Has any other decade been the subject of such self-absorption?
Mr. Dresser deftly sidesteps these issues by exercising a light touch with the setting. While the sixties make up the backdrop of the story, Mr. Dresser uses details sparingly and judiciously, avoiding the wallop-over-the-head effect of many stories set during this period. There are references to the escalating war in Vietnam, the draft, the Kennedy assassination, and new record releases by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but these are kept in the background, secondary to the daily movements of the characters through their lives.
As Rusty and Jodie’s love deepens, we learn of their lives in small-town central Massachusetts. Jodie works at a department store part-time while finishing high school. She lives with her mother, recently separated from her borderline-alcoholic father. Rusty, a college freshman, comes from a traditional Catholic family. He lives with his parents, a salty grandmother, and his sister Chelsea, an unwed teen mother. The story is presented in short, staccato paragraphs separated by blank lines, giving the novel a lean tone that evokes the brevity of Raymond Carver and the rural atmospherics of Jim Harrison. At times the novel labors under stilted dialog that sounds more writerly than authentic, such as when Chelsea says to Jodie regarding her baby, “I just breast-fed her. That makes me feel so close to her,” and Jodie replies, “I’m sure it’s worth it to hear your baby gurgle and see her smile up at you,” or when Jodie says to Rusty, “Since we are in a loving, caring relationship I figured we could share our thoughts. But I see that’s not so. So I’ll just keep my opinions to myself.” On other pages, the dialog slips into a natural, seamless groove that brings the characters to life with charm and vitality.
Ultimately, In My Life charms and engages the reader with its evocation of a bygone era in an affectionate, light-handed manner. The story pulls you into a time when the old farms and fields are slowly giving way to the march of the 20th century. In My Life is the story of lives, with all of their joys, disappointments and messy complexities. Like a well-lived life, it is offbeat, imperfect and ultimately delightful.
Thomas Dresser will signs copies of In My Life on Saturday, July 11 at Edgartown Books from 3 to 4 p.m.
In My Life is available at Bunch of Grapes, Edgartown Books, Rainy Day, Secret Garden or at Redleadbooks.com and at thomasdresser.com. For details, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 508-693-1050.