Unraveling an Intricate Web of Guilt

My review of David Prete from last weekend’s Irish Examiner

August and Then Some

David Prete 

Fourth Estate; €17.15,

Review: Val Nolan

A work of ferocious insight and craftsmanship, David Prete’s sophomore effort opens with its protagonist lugging an eighty-pound slab of slate away from a demolition site having “swiped it for free furniture”. JT Savage intends to use the slate as a table in his bare studio apartment yet the image of this eighteen year old wrestling his prize through the streets is a powerful encapsulation of his character as a whole: weighed down by the events of the recent past, JT is now struggling to salvage anything he can from the rubble of his life.

From the keenly observed New York City of the opening pages to the genuinely shocking final chapters, August and Then Some offers the reader a lived-in, experiential level of nuance and detail. A construction labourer by day and a tenement insomniac by night, JT is “a shaved-headed wildcard kid who dresses like a derelict”. Old before his time, but without the emotional maturity to process his experience, JT has “trickled down” from his childhood home in Yonkers in the aftermath of a family tragedy. Once a week he returns for court-ordered counselling sessions however no one seems too concerned about his obvious depression or the fact that a boy who made a mistake is now being “treated like a hardened criminal”.

Switching back and forth between JT’s present and his recollections of the previous summer, the novel’s intricate web of guilt and blame traps its protagonist in a moral minefield. To detail too much of the plot would be to defuse the slow burn Prete has set in motion; it is enough to say that August and Then Some is a story which locks together perfectly, each new nugget of JT’s past another tightened screw in a machine designed to break your heart.

Prete, who also acts and teaches, is the author of the well-received Italian-American family saga Say That to My Face (2003) along with a handful of standout short stories. Building on his previous work, the dialogue of August and Then Some is gritty and real, laced with the frustrations of a forgotten urban underclass. The characters’ speech has a rawness which counterpoints JT’s own thoughtful introspection, his knowledge that he drinks too much, and his unexpressed terror at the thought of turning into his father. “I know a little about fathers myself,” the elder Savage warns his son on the day he leaves: “You’re taking me with you too. Don’t ever forget it”.

Steeped in Prete’s obvious understanding of human nature, and with a rich supporting cast, August and Then Some is a coming-of-age story which resists making any easy choices. JT’s struggle is beautifully realized through a mix of wit and resignation, with Prete’s prose – like his protagonist’s slate – possessed of an undeniable heft and power. This is a very fine novel indeed.

This article originally published in the Irish Examiner, Saturday, April 28th, p.16.

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