The International Writers Magazine
:Book Review

LONG WAY BACK by Brendan Halpin
Villard, 2006, 212 pp.  ISBN: 1-4000-6278-0
A Charlie Dickinson review

Brendan Halpin's second novel, LONG WAY BACK, is memorable family drama about a sister, Clare, and her younger brother, Francis, served with large dollops of punk rock and Roman Catholicism.  Although the novel starts in Cincinnati, most of the story happens in the Boston area.

The story is told in Clare's voice.  At times, I thought Halpin bobbled the ventriloquism (that is, a male giving voice to a female).  That one quibble aside, LONG WAY BACK succeeds for this reviewer with a wealth of other virtues.
       For openers, Halpin sets up a convincing (and moving) sibling relationship by introducing Clare and Francis in an opening scene when they are fourteen and twelve, respectively.  Five pages and the next chapter begins "Four years later ...."  Clare and Francis are now eighteen and fourteen.  In such chapter jumps--a year or more at a time--the reader watches these two age and become adults until they reach their thirties and Francis has a potentially life-destroying crisis.
       By now, Clare is married, has children, and obsesses a bit much about her Rubenesque figure.  Hospice work gives her psychic income and strengthens her religious faith, but more importantly she does not lose faith in Francis, even if he sits in the basement of his house for days on end, content to listen to punk rock records, a passion he and Clare shared since teenage years.
       Clare and Francis come from a devout family, committed to serving others.  Throughout most of the novel, their parents are on missionary assignments in Latin America.  Francis seemed destined for the priesthood, but backed away, settling for a church job as a youth outreach worker.  So it is with particular anguish, the reader shares Francis's loss of faith when life serves up more loss than he might be expected to bear.
       Besides his personal loss, Francis is revolted by what Halpin intends as thinly disguised references to the Boston Archdiocese pedophile scandals, which led to the 2002 resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law.  On several levels, Francis's rejection of the Roman Catholic Church is complete.
       Miraculously, punk rock is Francis's salvation.  How a thirty-something without previous musical experience wrangles a gig as a bass player (supposedly an easier instrument to take up) with the group Happy Jack, which gains national breakout success with a gay punk hit, "I Wanna Get Married," is part of the turnaround Clare sees her brother pull off.
Halpin's authority at the punk rock scene is obvious and one reason he can work narrative magic with Francis's recovery of faith.
       Family drama, which LONG WAY BACK represents, will have strong emotions when well-written.  The last scene in the novel manages to be simultaneously over-the-top, tear-jerking, compassionate, and demonstrative of the best that can be said for family support.  Not to give away the ending, but the last scene features a performance of the Who's opera TOMMY, complete with smashed musical instruments.  A scene Halpin nails and worth the price of this book.
© Charlie Dickinson March 2006
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