Unsentimental Education

Sue Halpern’s remarkable first novel, like many novels, is essentially about education, or that aspect of education called growing up. But the book’s main character must, in effect, grow up all at once, and the story suggests that education happens not because of anything that teachers do but because certain students want, or are willing, or somehow manage to learn, much to everyone’s surprise.

Unfortunately there are few such students anywhere, least of all, perhaps, in places like the one where Halpern locates The Book of Hard Things, rural northern New England, with its woods and mountains, its hard winters and brief summers, its small settlements where people scratch out livings from marginal farm land, cater to vacationers, or carry on public works like repairing roads in summer and plowing them in winter. Halpern herself divides her time between upstate New York and Vermont, not far from the New Hampshire of some of Frost’s best poems, where old roads may lead to houses or even villages that are no longer there. The world she pictures is also more up-to-date than that, not unlike the Maine of some of Stephen King’s less antic and fantastic moods, where large families in small places diligently interbreed, where pickup trucks are the vehicles not of suburban choice but of necessity, and the young dream of escaping to an “outside” they know only from the media. Halpern’s main characters live in a part of town called “Poverty” by those who live elsewhere, and the Bunyanesque touch has its point.

The central figure in The Book of Hard Things is named Thomas Gage, but no one uses his first name; he’s universally called “Cuzzy” because he has a lot of cousins even for a place where nearly everyone is related to everyone else. He has very little more. He’s an only child, his mother is four years dead, and his father, a Baptist lay preacher, has been in a mental hospital since Cuzzy was nine. Cuzzy is newly out of high school, though hardly educated, and homeless since his cousin Hank kicked him out for “disrespecting” Hank’s wife. He has no steady job; home is a sleeping bag on the shore of a lake. He hangs out with local hard cases who, though also uneducated, live comfortably enough at their own level, like his cousin Joey, recently jailed for having sex with his younger sister and his dog and now working in a clown suit at the Nice n Easy convenience store, where he discreetly swipes stuff for himself and his pals.

Joey’s cousin Ram Pullen, a bully who deals drugs and has “a thing for guns,” likes to say that he and his henchmen, the Miller half-brothers (fondly known as “the Sylvanias” because their heads are shaped like lightbulbs), are the northern posse of an L.A. gang, and they’re certainly avid readers of Soldier of Fortune. Then there’s Cuzzy’s slightly older …

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