One of Thomas Rogers’s many gifts as a novelist is his ability to imbue the less appealing realities of both love and landscape with a gentle, elegiac beauty. Rogers writes about adolescent boys and the industrial towns of eastern Indiana. Nothing, at first glance, could excite less admiration. Yet, in Rogers’s loving hands, drunken frat boys are revealed in all the sweetness of their humanity, and the fires of steel mills decorate the evening sky like sunsets.
Rogers publishes a book about every ten years, which may help to explain the relative obscurity of so remarkable a writer. Confessions of a Child of the Century came out in 1972, a mad, brilliant, ambitious book in which a young man named Samuel Heather sweeps through the middle of the last century with the intellectual and linguistic assurance of Nabokov and the emotional reason of Dr. Seuss. It is a very funny book, shifting effortlessly from the absurdities of growing up the son of a midwestern bishop, to a college boy’s ardent first affair, to a magnificently terrifying and surreal battle scene, to an entertaining bout of Korean prison-camp brainwashing. Confessions becomes abruptly, unexpectedly dull and pious toward the end, but that is a small price to pay for the flashing virtuosity of the first three quarters.
Rogers’s next book, At the Shores, originally published in 1980 and now reissued in paperback, is an entirely different undertaking. It is a quiet, modest novel, and it is nearly perfect. The shores of the title are those of Lake Michigan where Jerry Engels, a high school student in the Forties, has always spent his summers. Jerry’s family has a cabin in a country-club community, planned in the Twenties and never quite finished, called Indiana Shores:
His lake, his shores, his dunes, and woods, and swamps were as wonderful and improbable as the Bohemian coast, for there, in sight of the towers of Chicago across the water, with the open hearth furnaces of Gary only sixteen miles to the west, he had shuffled along the beach through singing sand, seen flocks of bluebirds resting on the telephone wires, and walked through fields of bottle gentians.
Jerry loves the lake. He loves the beach and the live dune. He loves to swim and to run. But mostly, Jerry Engels loves girls.
Part One of At the Shores is called “The Boy Who Liked Girls,” but it could have been the title of the novel itself:
For as far back in his consciousness as he could go there had always been three women in his life: his mother, his sister, and his girl. The difference was that Mother and Sister were always the same women, whereas the role of girl had been filled by what seemed like a cast of thousands.
He treated his first girl, a disheveled doll, with apache roughness, dragging her around by an arm or a leg. Yet he loved her. He refused to go to sleep unless …