It is 1966 and Frank Kovacek has died of a heart attack, leaving his family to grieve for him — each in his or her own unique way. This is the overarching event that drives this excellent debut novel by Ralph Cohen.
Jenny seems to glimpse her father everywhere, and even feels his hand ruffling the top of her head from time to time. Margot recalls vividly the trip she and her siblings took with her dad to the fishing barge — it left her traumatized for months afterward. And Toby, for his part, feels compelled to visit his dead father’s workshop one day, hoping for a hint of Old Spice, but instead nearly severing his hand with a power saw.
The characters are believable, achingly vulnerable, and the writing in the book is often lyrical — all hallmarks of great writing. For example, Margot’s father explains that July fourth fireworks are to honor fallen soldiers, who have gone up into the heavens to become stars.
“I turned the idea over in my head, and after awhile I could almost picture it — a million sparks flying up into the night, each one a soul that the War had snuffed out.”
And so the months and years go by. Ruth, Frank’s widow, whimpers and cries softly in another man’s bed — it’s too soon, too soon. And Jenny, who has been afraid of boys and men since an unfortunate experience soon after the funeral, finally gets a date, but it ends badly. Margot winds up in a failed marriage, and Toby acts out his anger and frustration by engaging in a round of petty home burglaries.
The loss of Frank continues to leave emotional ripples long after he’s been buried. After going through a particularly rough patch trying to graduate high school, Margot and her mother have a verbal confrontation that escalates rapidly to a painful conclusion for Margot.
“The slap wasn’t so terrible — it only stung for a moment. What hurt was the look in her eyes. It was the same look she used to give Dad at his most shiftless moments.”
The reader follows each of the family members as they stumble and cope their way through life, and we see the profound effect the loss of a flawed but desperately needed man can have on those he leaves behind. This is their story, after all — Frank Kovacek only makes a cameo appearance at the beginning of this hauntingly beautiful, carefully connected series of vignettes.
And, in the end, there is resolution for some, inescapable consequences for others. Trust me, you will remember these players long after they’ve exited the stage and you’ve turned the book’s last page.
I give five stars unequivocally to this fine first effort by Cohen and look forward to more of his high caliber fiction in the future.