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by Dean Bakopoulos
Harcourt, Inc., 2005, 275 pp.
ISBN: 0-15-101135-4
Charlie Dickinson

The premise of Dean Bakopoulos's debut novel, PLEASE DON'T COME BACK FROM THE MOON, is at once odd and entrancing: "When I was sixteen, my father went to the moon."

In the fictive, upper Midwest, working-class burg of Maple Rock, all fathers in town, one by one, disappear. None is heard from again. One dad leaves a note saying, I'm going to the moon. Others will follow, using the same line. Narrator Michael Stolij, a Ukranian-American, doesn't know what to make of this, nor do his friends, other teenage sons left to survive with their suddenly abandoned moms and siblings.

By itself, fathers vanishing in moonlight is utterly illogical, but as emotional truth, the fictive construct resonates spot-on. The novel raises the narrative question of how Michael and his friends will find a healing for this paternal loss on their way to manhood--and inevitably--fatherhood. Smartly, Bakopoulos doesn't give reasons for the fathers' leavings--the reason can be as vague as the moon calling them--because what really matters and what's worth showing is the void left behind by these "moonbound" dads.

Michael Stolij takes us through the balance of his teenage years and his twenties, as he gets part-time jobs, graduates from high school, goes to community college, works deadend jobs (including one as a mall bookstore clerk), falls in and out of love, gets a break at a radio station, becoming a reporter--then becomes a dad. We also learn how many of his friends have similar odysseys, but none ever learns an iota of where their dads went to live happily (or miserably).

Dean Bakopoulos has considerable gifts as a novelist. His comic tone never drops Michael's splendid sardonic take on what life keeps offering: "We were still young, heading toward eighteen and nineteen....I bet if you could have stepped inside our squirrelly heads for one minute and seen the impossible futures we were already imagining, well, then your heart would break. You'd weep."
Like Charles Dickens, Bakopoulos defines characters with no wasted words:
"He bit his lip; he made a fist.
"Then he pointed his thumb at each and every one of us and said, 'You are the future of our great nation ..."
That's candidate Bill Clinton addressing Michael and the crowd in Maple Rock in the summer of 1992.

Moreover, Bakopoulos rewards the reader with laugh-aloud dialogue, imaginative metaphors (Speaking of the last fathers to leave town: "They were like robins that wander stupidly through the snow in January"), and for all its high-energy tragicomedy, subtlety. Michael is at a health spa, waiting to talk with the teenage receptionist, who has white hair and orange skin. Why orange skin? Nobody says. But the woman behind Michael in line has come to buy vitamins. Which is to say, what's unsaid is, People took beta-carotene supplements in the Nineties until their skin turned orange.

Any coming-of-age novel like PLEASE DON'T COME BACK FROM THE MOON, featuring a young man's travails can be expected to have its share of drinking and other substance abuse, and, surprise, sex. Bakopoulos handles the sex scenes with a deft artistic maturity and humor ("We lost our virginity like spare change"). Like good Richard Ford, Bakopoulos handles the sex scenes for the psychological contest any coupling is: firstly, between the twosome's ears.

For its narrative pacing and strategy, its satisfying, earned ending, and its elegaic portrayal of longing over time, PLEASE DON'T COME BACK FROM THE MOON feels less like a debut novel, than something more mature. While it's subjective to assert, this reviewer would say compiling a list of debut novels by established "literary stars" failing to match the achievement of this novel would not be overly difficult.

PLEASE DON'T COME BACK FROM THE MOON is simply a moving novel. We should expect rewards from whatever Dean Bakopoulos might write in the future.
© Charlie Dickinson October 2005
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