Susan Perabo's first novel, The Broken Places, poses the intriguing question of whether success and celebrity can be just as damaging as great failure and obscurity. The story is told through the eyes of Paul, the 12-year-old son of fireman Sonny and his beautiful, prickly schoolteacher wife Laura. When Ian Finch, one of the nastier kids from the local high school, gets trapped under a collapsed house he was building—a bomb seems to have prematurely gone off—Sonny rescues him and becomes a national celebrity. It's a newfound notoriety that seems to unhinge the otherwise affable and burly fireman.
Meanwhile, a brush with death and the ordeal of getting his foot axed off to free him from a deathtrap has done nothing to mellow the contemptible Ian, a kid with a swastika tattooed on his back and a propensity for wearing trench coats. Ian's sarcasm and lack of gratitude persists even when he and Sonny and Paul are flown to California to watch the filming of a movie about the incident. Moreover, Ian seems to have a hold over Sonny that both the reader and Paul find alarming and inexplicable.
Paul is a well-behaved, intelligent and athletic only child used to a lifetime of his parents' full attention. Sonny's sudden bond with a boy regarded by Paul and much of the rest of their town as a "goner" rouses his understandable jealousy. Perabo, who has previously written a collection of short stories, tells the tale in a matter of fact voice that still manages to engender dread in the reader; something bad appears to be lurking just around the corner. Her evocation of a boy on the edge of adolescence living in a small and close-knit town that still has one foot in the 1950s is remarkable. Her description of Sonny is heartbreaking. He's a good and dutiful man who finds himself in a situation for which he is trained, but with consequences he couldn't have expected.
The Broken Places is a moving evocation of the lies and myths families tell each other, the arbitrariness of fate and the inevitable, necessary pain of a child who comes to see his father and others as real, flawed human beings.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.