Tag Archives: Depression

“Breaking Out”— a moving portrait of adolescent despair

Bob Brink, “Breaking Out.” iUniverse. 244 pages. Hardback $26.95, Paperback $16.95.

This is a noteworthy first novel, although it too often reads more like a case study or third-person autobiography. The reader is asked to attend to so many details, seemingly of equal importance, that control over emphasis suffers. Very minor characters are introduced as if readers had better get to know them, but this turns out not to be the case. They quickly leave the scene and the novel. Often, scenes that merit only summary presentation are elaborately dramatized.

Bob Brink

And yet “Breaking Out” is powerful and deals with important issues.  It is powerful in that Bob Brink’s writing style is clear and attractive. His sentences and paragraphs are well turned. His descriptions of persons and places are vivid and insightful. Thus, while larger structural elements are problematic, his evocative prose has polish and grace.

The important thematic issues have to do with diagnosing and treating potentially dangerous neurotic behavior and understanding the nature and consequences of parenting that is psychologically debilitating.

We first meet the main character, Britt Rutgers, when he is a high school student in the 1950s. Mr. Brink efficiently paints a telling scene about Britt’s extreme self-consciousness and sensitivity. Britt can barely bring himself to cross the crowded gymnasium of the Mayfield (Iowa) High School to take an available seat. He imagines that all of the students crowded into the bleacher seats will be staring at him, and the feeling of exposure and scrutiny is unbearable. He is almost paralyzed. 

We learn, as well, that Britt is sexually naïve and doesn’t even know the everyday language of sexuality that is constantly on the lips of his classmates.

From here, the author moves backward and forward in time, providing the causes of Britt’s painful self-awareness, innocence, and lack of confidence – as well as the later consequences of those causal factors.

The Rutgers household is a stern and emotionally cold environment. Informed by the fundamentalist Calvinist theology and discipline of the region’s strict Dutch Reformed Church, it is an environment with a strong work ethic and a strong sense of sin. Milton and Miriam Rutgers, Britt’s parents, seem incapable of healthy nurturing. Britt’s personality presents them with issues they can’t handle, but they have magnified his sense of worthlessness by offering only rejection while doing all they can to encourage and support the endeavors of their fairly ordinary oldest son, Kevin.

The parents never quite figure out that words of kindness, approval, and respect would do Britt far more good than their willingness to support psychological and psychiatric treatment, treatment that involves two periods of extended institutionalization and a regimen of shock therapy. . . .

To read this review in its entirety as it appears in the September 22, 2011 issue of the Palm Beach Gardens Florida Weekly, the September 29 isue of the Naples edition, and the October 5 issue of the Fort Myers edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Bob Brink.

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Velva Jean Learns to Drive, by Jennifer Niven

Jennifer Niven has fashioned a delightful and probing fiction set in the remote Appalachian communities of North Carolina. We first encounter the title character, Velva Jean Hart, in 1933. She is a ten year old whose mind is beginning to turn toward serious things, like being saved at the annual Three Gum Revival and Camp Meeting. Velva Jean’s sense of herself as a sinner ready to turn a page in her spiritual life is set against her aspiration of going to Nashville to become a star performer at the Grand Ole Opry. She wonders if she can be saved and yet fulfill her dreams. As Jennifer Niven explores the next eight years of her protagonist’s life, the intersection of the sacred and the profane is the author’s moving thematic target.

Niven’s exploration of the revivalist religious dimension in the isolated and Depression-plagued mountain south is powerful, as is her evocation of family and community feeling. In a place with few paved roads and few cars, the mountain walls seem to imprison and protect the people who dwell there. Folkways and local superstitions collide with other kinds of private, public, and communal identity markers. Change comes slowly, but sometimes that change is momentous.

In an economy based on mining and moonshine, the coming of a major highway that will link the mountaintops presents, to some, a sense of opportunity and wonder. To others, it is a threat, an invasion, an intrusion of outer forces on a settled lifestyle. For Velva Jean, the road promises a future, a means to fulfill her dreams.

But she’ll have to learn how to drive.

The link given below will take you to the full text of the most recent of my several reviews for Southern Literary Review. Others can be found via the link on the menu bar to the right.

Velva Jean Learns to Drive, by Jennifer Niven – http://pulsene.ws/161PG

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