Nick Brandi reviews Eastern Shore author Gerald Sweeney’s latest literary work
For some, it may be tempting to assume that existential angst got its start with the tattered flannel shirts and relative social ineptitude of Gen X — or, if you’re a little older perhaps, with Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield. The fact, however, is that it’s been with us from the beginning, especially when you consider literary princes of the realm such as Oedipus and Hamlet, each of whom had serious issues with Mommy and Daddy. So it comes as no surprise when Gerald F. Sweeney offers up his own poster child for adolescent malaise in his book Crashing into Sunrise.
It is the story of Jim Mahoney as he arrives on the steps of Long Island, NY’s Manhasset High School, his academic home for the next four years. It was 1943, and much of the country’s young male population was off fighting the Axis powers in World War II. Preceded at MHS by his popular brother, Matt, Jim got nothing out of high school other than his discovery of girls and their fascinating contours in addition to some superficial friendships he formed with his Alpha fraternity brothers, who, while perhaps more temperate than their modern-day counterparts, were in many cases equally obtuse and unevolved.
But none of them embodied those dubious distinctions more than Jim himself, whose meteoric rise to popularity was fueled by nothing better than a cool older brother, a premature six feet in height and a halfway decent dollop of black-Irish good looks. But in high school, those qualifications are more than enough to catapult even the worst sociopath to parochial superstar status.
The problem is that Jim is a void. The fundamental nature of his internal constitution was to be concerned with nothing other than himself and those things that brought him immediate gratification. Kind of like a feral creature. Now, while such a state is considered endemic if not intrinsic to the adolescent psyche, the depths of Jim’s solipsism made the typical teen seem like an altruist by comparison. The really interesting subtextual schism of that time in Jim’s life is how his devoutly Catholic beliefs, to which he clung tenaciously, had no manifest effect on his day-to-day thoughts and actions except for his stalwart determination not to have premarital sex. But there are reasons that Jim is this way, reasons that are variously alluded to but deliberately never explored narratively in the book’s 415 pages.
It is a risky undertaking by author Sweeney to say least, when even halfway through the book, his protagonist and central character basically remains a no-account ne’er-do-well who does absolutely nothing of value other than inspiring the reader to care as little about him as he does the fictional world around him. But take heart: When all is said and done, poor, clueless Jim — who never intends his inhumanity nor consciously means harm to anyone (which kinda makes him that much scarier) — is unmasked and abandoned for the empty suit he is. It is this long-overdue reckoning that propels the young man into the next phase of his life.
There is, however, a method to Sweeney’s literary madness. Crashing into Sunrise is the third installment of his series The Columbiad, which follows the Mahoney family across three generations; multiple wars, including two world wars; the Great Depression; life-altering assassinations; and a host of cultural revolutions that together span a century.
That Sweeney can write is not in question. A Midwesterner by birth who spent much of his life in both New York and Washington, D.C. before ultimately settling in Maryland’s Talbot County, his command of the language and ability to translate nostalgia and the zeitgeist of an era into an intellectual reality for readers of all ages makes his work substantial and a worthwhile endeavor. Yet, I came away from Crashing into Sunrise with a feeling similar to what those with healthy appetites experience when dining at a four-star French culinary institute: I sampled some really exquisite morsels yet left far from sated. That is no doubt exactly what the author intends.
Thus, the desire to satisfy my palate will likely impel me to visit this Jim Mahoney again sometime; besides, something tells me he may just appreciate the company.
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