Childhood has a way of alternately inflating and minimizing important events, and it’s often only in hindsight that we’re able to make sense of them and think about their meanings and ramifications. Maine-based writer Dave Patterson — who has also contributed to this publication — has used this trick of childhood memories to great effect in his debut novel, “Soon the Light Will Be Perfect,” creating a tapestry of moments whose individual significance isn’t always clear but whose accumulation is quietly moving.

Cover courtesy of Hanover Square Press

When the book starts, the unnamed narrator of “Soon the Light,”  as well as his brother, and their parents — none of whom have names, an eerie yet stirring device — have only recently managed to move out of the trailer park and into a house in a working poor Vermont neighborhood. But while the narrator and his brother may be proud to no longer be park kids, a class distinction that made them pariahs at school and only fit to hang out with other park kids, their problems are only just getting started.

Their mother has recently been diagnosed with stomach cancer, and she spends much of her time vomiting and sleeping. Their father works for a weapons manufacturing plant and worries constantly about the precariousness of his position. To make matters worse, there’s drama at their tight-knit Catholic church following a demonstration outside a Planned Parenthood at which their firmly anti-abortion mother nevertheless crossed the protest line in order to comfort a young woman who’d come out of the facility.

None of this is overstated or even deeply explored. Instead, our narrator reports what’s going on, what he observes, and what he feels about it, and even though he occasionally makes clear that he’s telling this story in hindsight, with the wisdom of distance and age, he also sticks closely to his 12-year-old experience, trying to figure out the complexities he’s faced with.

Plus, it’s not as if this is a family where everyone sits down and cozily shares their feelings. Instead, love is communicated through actions: the narrator and his brother try to keep quiet or away when their mother sleeps, and they accompany her to her chemo and later radiation treatments; their father works all summer long to build the perfect kitchen table after they gave their old one to a woman at church who needed it; the narrator smokes his first joint while working on the table with his brother when their father is gone. The list could go on, but the point is, they stick together. This is brought home vividly soon after the narrator meets a trailer park girl named Taylor on the Fourth of July. She starts visiting his house, and one day she asks him if he likes his father:

“‘Yes,’ I say without giving it a thought. In the silence that follows, I consider my father. I’ve never thought about whether or not I like him. He works a lot and when he’s not at work, he’s taking my mother to the hospital or he’s in the garage working on the table or at church helping with the food pantry that my mom ran before she had cancer…

“’He must be a good man,’” Taylor says. ‘Look at this table he’s building. And he didn’t leave when your mother got cancer.’
It never occurred to me that leaving us was an option.”

The other kids we meet in the neighborhood don’t seem to be doing particularly well either. There’s Shane, whose father was extremely sick but ultimately died in a car crash. There’s Travis, a lonely boy with a single mom and no friends. And Taylor herself, of course, who mentions offhandedly that her mother’s boyfriends tend to get “obsessed” with her. There’s a reason these kids are drawn to one another — they’re all struggling. While the narrator is ultimately one of the lucky ones, in that he has a more stable home than the others, he’s still dealing with plenty of upheaval, including his own experimentation with his burgeoning sexuality and the accompanying shame and guilt instilled in him by his faith.

It’s fitting that the Gulf War hovers in the background, shadowy yet urgent. The narrator’s attitude toward it is deeply conflicted, especially as his parents’ faith is very much of the do-as-Jesus-would variety, and they attempt to be kind and giving to all others, no matter their faith. “I wonder how war can be good,” the narrator thinks, watching the news in his mother’s hospital room, “and if at night I should pray for the war to stop or for the fighting to continue… if my father gets laid off like the other men at his plant we’ll be back in a cramped mobile home where the air is chalky with dust from the gravel pit.”

What’s striking about “Soon the Light Will Be Perfect,” among other things, is how it manages to juggle so many elements yet feels so uncluttered. Patterson’s spare style and his ability to touch on conflicts and tensions without always resolving them makes the novel a beautiful exploration of what it means to come of age in difficult circumstances.

Ilana Masad is a book critic and fiction writer working on her Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her debut novel, “All My Mother’s Lovers,” is forthcoming from Dutton in summer, 2020.


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